by Annette Hinkle
John v.H. Halsey, the president of the Peconic Land Trust, talks about the successes and the challenges of land preservation on the East End on the eve of the trust’s 30th anniversary.
The Peconic Land Trust turns 30 in 2013 — from where you sit, how have land preservation efforts evolved in the last three decades?
There are a lot of dimensions to that question. Of course, it’s complicated. The fundamental problem of real estate values is a constant. In fact, the real estate values from the ‘70s — when the efforts to protect open space and farmland began — was a driving issue. Since then the values have continued to appreciate.
To give a sense of the degree of difficulty today, the restricted value of protected farmland in Southampton Town is $100,000 per acre. Of course, that’s beyond what a farmer can afford. Because of the price we pay for food, the economics don’t work when you get to $100,000 an acre.
Corollary to that, if you own 100 acres of protected farmland, it’s an asset of $10 million. Imagine what the land’s worth the with rights intact. That problem still is a driving force in decisions people have to make. Estate planning is often part of the process and hopefully they do that before it becomes a problem.
Land owners have been empowered with more conservation tools — both private and public — than were available in the 1970s when many were blindsided by this and thought they had two options — to sell the farm to pay the taxes or let their kids deal with it. Neither one is good and we wanted for the community as a whole to preserve this agricultural legacy.
Purchase of development rights, easements, installment purchases and estate piece have all combined to accomplish a tremendous amount not only in terms of short term acquisition but in terms of estate planning.
How do preservation efforts need to change going forward?
We are facing problems we didn’t anticipate in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We have to yet again refine the tools we have. While we’re protecting the resource of farmland, we’re not protecting working farms or conserving them. How does a food producing farmer compete where protected farmland is $100,000 an acre? We have to do more if we want to sustain the business of farming as well as farming itself. It was an unanticipated problem — that there would be a market of non-farmers buying protected land. There’s nothing to compel buyers to farm. We need to make that land available to farmers.
We tried to address that by reselling protected farmland to the Pikes [in Sagaponack] with additional restrictions to ensure it would be available to future farmers at a price they can afford. It also enabled us to sell to the Pikes the land below $100,000 an acre.
One of Land Trust’s goals is to protect 15,000 acres of working farms, natural lands and watershed areas by 2015. Are we on track for that goal?
It’s hard to say. We’ve gone through a rough spell here with the economy. But I think it’s possible. Working with our partners, both the public sector and the private through conservation easements and the blending of resources, we’re able to supplement public money. We need to ensure the town boards, county and state legislators and the governor all the way up are on board and we have to educate them on the importance of these tools.