By Karl Grossman
Is it the right time, what with the economy weak, to push on with open space and farmland preservation in Suffolk County? In Southampton Town, an advisory committee recently recommended the town spend $125 million over the next four years to save open space and farmland. The money would come from the Community Preservation Fund in dollars already obtained or expected through its two percent transfer tax on the sale of most real estate.
“Our community character is the basis of our economy,” commented Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst in endorsing the plan. Southampton is putting together a list of areas “we never want to see developed, our farmlands, open spaces, important watersheds.”
“Southampton gets it!” says Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. Yes, the economy is weak but, as a result, “land prices have never been better. There are more willing sellers than ever before. And Southampton Town has a Community Preservation Fund that continues to generate substantial sums of money without burdening taxpayers.”
Local governments on eastern Long Island have been taking this view. And most Long Islanders consider it correct. Mr. Amper cites an opinion survey of Long Islanders which found that eight out of 10 think that despite the economic downturn, preservation should be maintained — or increased.
They don’t believe the claim of developers that more development is needed. As Mr. Amper states, “When land gets developed there comes with that more taxes for schools, roads, police protection and on and on. When you buy open space you protect it forever, otherwise you’re stuck paying for all the additional government services forever.”
The preservation work of local governments contrasts with the performance of other levels of government. The federal government’s contribution to land preservation is now “an occasional grant,” says Mr. Amper. “The state is pathetic,” he declares. And he is unhappy with the efforts of the administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. (Mr. Levy contests this.)
As to the various towns, Mr. Amper says Shelter Island “has continued to spend selectively and wisely and has a greater percentage of its land protected than any other Long Island town.” Riverhead “has advanced the purposes of the Community Preservation Fund better than any other town, borrowing against anticipated revenue to the maximum extent possible.” Southold “has supplemented its Community Preservation Fund money with its own bond issues.”
“East Hampton has bought a lot of land and they’re approaching the end game….They did so well so early that they are approaching mopping up operations.” Southampton “is the most enlightened town on Long Island in protecting open space right now.”
As for Brookhaven Town, bigger than all of Nassau County and sitting between mostly over-developed and thus highly-taxed western Long Island and the East End, it’s “between a rock and hard place,” he says. The town doesn’t have a Community Preservation Fund after developers poured money into defeating a referendum on such a system coming to Brookhaven. Still, Brookhaven has made land preservation part of its capital budget, but, meanwhile, the town has more land in need of preservation than any other town on Long Island, emphasizes Mr. Amper.
The idea of a Community Preservation Fund financed through a real estate transfer tax was brilliant. What could be fairer than having those who purchase high-priced real estate — with protection offered to first-time home buyers — carrying the main financial burden for land preservation?
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised and used to save open space and farmland through the Community Preservation Funds in the five East End towns since the program was voted in by referenda a dozen years ago. Surely, Brookhaven Town needs, at long last, a similar program.
Before the developers’ bulldozers seek to resume their eastward push, the initiative to save eastern Long Island from the fate of much of western Long Island, to keep this area a green and livable place — and preserve an economy based on that — should be pursued with vigor.