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Editorial 1/26/11: Protecting Preservation

Posted on 27 January 2012

When financial times are good, elected officials take their jobs seriously. They work hard and utilize public money to improve the lives of their constituency through projects that are not only responsible, but forward thinking.

From the building of roads and museums to improved transportation systems or the cleaning of polluted waterways, when there’s enough to go around, no one bats an eyelash at these expenditures.

And when financial times are tough, elected officials still take their jobs seriously. But in this economic climate, more often than not legislators are facing down an angry and questioning constituency that’s backed them into a corner, demanding to know why so much money is being spent on projects they don’t understand and don’t feel they need. History has shown that in times like this, any and all expenditures are fair game for the legislative chopping block.

This is exactly what seems to be happening at the county level right now. In a recent meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature, the focus of debate was the county’s purchase of just over 57 acres of farmland development rights at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island for just under $5 million. The purchase is a partnership between Shelter Island and the county (which will kick in $3,277,000) and represents phase II of a total 241 acre acquisition at the manor. At the session, several legislators also took issue with the county’s planned acquisition of a parcel of farmland in Riverhead

Though the contracts have been drawn up and the purchases were approved through a public referendum back in 2007 that gave county legislators the power to preserve open space, several legislators balked at the spending of such large sums in the face of such dire financial circumstances. So while the session should have, in essence, been the equivalent of the closings for the properties, instead, county and town partnerships for the preservation of open space are now under fire.

Diverse Suffolk County bears little, if any, resemblance to counties in upstate New York that are fairly homogeneous. Suffolk is densely populated in its western portion — and has all the conveniences and problems that go along with such urban and suburban sprawl — while the rural eastern portion of the county is less populated and derives much of its economic power from it’s ability to preserve its farmland and open spaces for tourism and commerce.

For legislators to the west whose constituents are struggling — and in many cases failing — to make ends meet, it can be difficult to see the value in preserving open space on the East End — a place they see as simply a playground for the wealthy. Saving vistas that most of them will never visit seems like a huge waste of money — and they are willing to go back to the public to ask whether we should continue to spend millions of dollars to preserve what has long made the East End special.

Which is why it’s important that East End residents pay attention to this debate – and weigh in heavily on it. With land purchases in both Shelter Island and Riverhead now being questioned, we can only assume it will be a matter of time before sites are set on land acquisition efforts in Southampton and East Hampton as well.

So get involved, make a call, and remind the Suffolk County Legislature of what we’re fighting to preserve.


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