Southampton Town is considering purchasing the development rights to 14 acres on Highland Terrace in Bridgehampton.
By Ellen Frankman
“Suffolk County was the first county to have a purchase of development rights program in the country,” explained John v.H. Halsey, the executive director of the Peconic Land Trust, an organization whose mission is to preserve agriculture on the East End of Long Island. “When these programs began in the ‘70s, no one ever anticipated that there would be anyone other than a farmer who would want to buy land that no longer has development rights on it.”
But the Land Trust, along with other East End conservation groups, is now facing more challenges than ever in the struggle to keep land affordable for farmers and farms that have defined the region for centuries.
The Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Council focused largely on this topic at its meeting last Friday, with Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming leading the discussion. Fleming spoke to the role of the town, explaining new obstacles for the Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund (CPF) as loopholes arise that hinder CPF’s primary mission to preserve open space and farmland in the five East End townships. Fleming also touched on what an expanded partnership with the Peconic Land Trust could mean for the area and its farmers.
“When the CPF was envisioned and enacted the folks who crafted it felt that if we preserved land, and simply said you can’t develop on it that that would preserve East End farms,” said Fleming. “But unfortunately, the value of open space on the South Fork is so astronomically high that you’re not going to get any new farmers.”
The average price of an acre of farmland in the state of New York is around $2,600. The same plot of land on the North Fork of Long Island will cost you $20,000, expensive by both state and national standards.
But if you are a farmer looking to purchase just a single preserved acre of land on the South Fork, you’d better be prepared to pay $100,000.
Despite the fact that the East End of Long Island has some of the best farmland and soil quality in New York State, and even in the country, the region can’t attract enough young farmers. Instead, they are opting to farm in states like Vermont and North Carolina where land is far less expensive.
The issue is further complicated by the town’s inability to work around exorbitant land prices for small farmers, said Fleming. Under the current language of the CPF, there is no requirement that the land actually be farmed. Endless expanses of green grass abutting huge homes and polo fields, on which not a tomato nor a carrot is grown, are technically preserved farmlands.
That’s where the Peconic Land Trust has stepped in. The Trust has a specific mission to preserve small agriculture and can conceivably do more than the CPF to ensure that the land is actually farmed. With its own funds, separate from those of the CPF, the Trust can purchase restrictions on its land that ultimately lessen the value of the land.
For instance, a restriction can be bought that says the land may never be used for equestrian purposes. Another restriction might enforce that the land cannot lay fallow for longer than two years. These stipulations are suited to farmers and are ultimately intended to decrease land prices. Less expensive land means it will be more affordable for small farmers.
But in order to be able to afford the purchase of these restrictions, the Peconic Land Trust needs access to funds. Essentially, the town can purchase the rights to develop the land, but the landowner retains the title and therefore remains the landowner.
“The Peconic Land Trust asked the town to consider the purchase of development rights,” said Fleming. “They will then use the sale of those development rights to buy additional restrictions on land that will then be farmed.”
The Peconic Land Trust has the ability to both add and enforce restrictions that the CPF cannot, but this solution has already drawn an onslaught of criticism. The Peconic Land Trust would be selling development rights to the CPF on land that is not preserved.
“You can’t buy development rights if you can’t develop the land,” explained Fleming. “If the Peconic Land Trust feels that they have to sell two lots on that property they could very well do that. They could very well sell those rights in order to further their mission to preserve agriculture.”
Essentially, there is no guarantee that protected land held by the Land Trust will never have houses on it in the future.
“Most of our holdings are protected because the land does not have development rights or we hold conservation easements,” said Halsey of the Peconic Land Trust. “There is very little of our holdings that could be sold or would be sold.”
While Halsey does recognize that unpreserved land held by the Trust is an asset, he says the mission of the organization will best be furthered not by the construction of houses, but by the sale of development rights to the CPF.
One such pending opportunity for the Trust and its supporting organization, the South Fork Land Fund (SFLF), lies in 14 acres on Highland Terrace in Bridgehampton. The SFLF aims to sell the development rights on the land to the town in order to buy property and place additional restrictions on the land to lower its value and better ensure that it will be affordable to farmers.
“It’s really a win-win,” said Halsey. “When most people sell their development rights the funds go into their pockets. But here it’s being put back to use for additional conservation. It’s a way of leveraging the asset for the benefit of the CPF because we are actually using those funds that the town is unable to.”
Under the enabling legislation of the CPF, the town is unable to resell any land it acquires. For those who have suggested low cost leases instead of the sale of development rights, Halsey believes that is only a temporary solution to a long-term problem.
“We want farmers to be in control of their destiny,” said Halsey. “The problem with leasing in the long term is how does a farmer have any security in that relationship, especially when they are renting from a municipality?”
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who was a major architect in the creation of the CPF, believes that the sale of development rights by the Peconic Land Trust should not yet be deemed the final solution in the push to keep land prices within the means of local farmers. The work of the CPF has helped to protect over 10,000 acres of farmland on the East End, but discontent and misinformation on either side of the debate over how to address sky-high land prices is only further evidence that more time may be needed before action, he said.
“This is a concept that is going to need much more study,” said Thiele. “There are going to be legal issues as well as policy issues, but it’s worthy a discussion.”
“This is the very beginning of a debate, and the community needs to make some decisions on how it feels about protecting agriculture and using agriculture,” said John Linder, the outgoing chair of the CAC, during Friday’s meeting. “Do we need another McMansion looking out to unused farmland? That’s what it always comes down to, developers needs versus community needs.”