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Saving Farmland: On Eve of Fundraiser Peconic Land Trust Founder Looks Back

Posted on 01 August 2013

The Peconic Land Trust's 2010 "Through Farms and Fields" lunchoen at The Port of Missing Men.

The Peconic Land Trust’s 2010 “Through Farms and Fields” lunchoen at The Port of Missing Men.

by Annette HInkle

Over the last 30 years, the Peconic Land Trust has worked to develop a series of tools and partnerships with one goal in mind — preservation of the farmland which has shaped the life and character of the East End for generations.

This weekend, the Peconic Land Trust celebrates 30 years with “Through Farms and Fields” its annual fundraising luncheon held at farm settings around the East End. This year’s event will be hosted by the Salm Family at The Port of Missing Men estate in North Sea.

Since the Land Trust’s inception in 1983, more than 10,000 acres of farmland have been protected from development in the area. Among them is the 30 acre Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, the CSA which was established back in 1990 on land donated to the Trust by Deborah Ann Light and, more recently, more than 100 acres of the historic Sylvester Manor property on Shelter Island.

Those are some pretty impressive stats for an organization founded by a young man who’s vision was based on what he literally saw going on next door. Earlier this week, that man, John v.H. Halsey, looked back at the history of the organization he founded on the East End back in 1983.

Though his family didn’t farm, Halsey, who grew up in Southampton, developed a great appreciation for farmers during high school when he worked on the Water Mill potato farm of another Halsey — Charlton.

“Having not grown up on a farming family, I admired the ingenuity, the practicality, the independence of farmers and their ability to do so much beyond what you would think,” recalls Halsey. “I carried irrigation pipe across fields, learned how to shingle a building, how to paint an interior and rudimentary plumbing.”

Halsey also came to appreciate the growing and harvesting cycle of crops and the vital role farmers played in the lifeblood of the East End.

“At that point in my life it was eye opening and made a big impression on me,” says Halsey.

Though he went on to Dartmouth College and moved to San Francisco where he worked for the Legal Aid Society and furthered his education at the Berkeley School of Social Welfare, it was a visit home which sealed his future — and that of the East End’s farmers as well.

“In 1980, I came home to see that the farm next had a for sale sign on it. The family said they had to sell the farm to pay the federal inheritance tax,” says Halsey. “I was 28-years-old and inheritance tax was the last thing on my mind. But I found it shocking that a 10th generation farm had to be sold.”

Halsey explains it really came down to the way tax law was written at the time and the fact that heirs paied taxes based on the “highest and best use” of the land.

“Though it was a farm, it’s the development potential that’s taxed,” explains Halsey. “If you’re a potato farmer, you’re not making that kind of money — so you’re land rich and cash poor.”

The issue really began in the 1970s when there was a huge appreciation of land values on the East End as more people built second homes. While inheritance taxes had not been unduly burdensome for previous generations, it became insurmountable when the increased popularity of the South Fork began driving up land prices.

Because of his experiences on the West Coast, Halsey was aware of how land trusts work and began to explore ways to create one here.

“In 1982, the Land Trust Exchange was created by the president’s executive director. It recognized the need and to ensure people knew what they were doing, created a national exchange to provide information to new organizations starting up.”

“That was founded a year before Peconic Land Trust and I was able to tap into that as well,” he says.

Also instrumental was the creation of PDR’s (Purchase of Development Rights) which Suffolk County Executive John Klein instituted in 1974. These were the first PDRs in the country and were used to remove the development potential from farmland, thereby lowering the value for estate tax purposes while allowing the land to continue to be farmed.

Other tools added over the years include things like gifts of conservation easements. Halsey notes that in 30 years, the Land Trust has put together some 500 projects and no two are the same.

“The land is different and the motivation of people is different and sometimes complicated,” he says. “There can be multiple owners and families and people with different goals, needs and circumstances. And before you can do anything, you have to tease all those out so you can come up with a plan, a strategy that will meet the owner’s need.”

He notes a big hurdle has been convincing farmers the process is one that can help them. He believes it all goes back to the independence of farmers.

“When I spoke to the family next door, I asked if there were PDRs on the land,” recalls  Halsey. “They said, ‘The government created this problem, why would we go to the government for a solution?’”

Instead, the family hired an attorney from Westchester County to help sell the farm for development. In the end, notes Halsey, it took five years for the deal to come through and the family paid a huge penalty on the inheritance tax they owed.

When it comes to finding ways to protect farmland, Halsey notes the process is never done nor fully perfected. The challenges now, he adds, include helping younger farmers own, rather than lease, their land and ensuring protected farmland doesn’t lie fallow or get swallowed up by other uses.

“We’ve come up with a good set of additional restrictions over the years that deter people from buying this land as a lawn, or some other amenity to development,” he says. “We also want young farmers to stick around and have as much security as possible. It makes them better stewards. If you’re on a year to year lease, do you invest in practices that cost money on land you don’t own?”

“In some respects, things are just the same, but 30 years ago, there wasn’t this problem of affordability of protected farmland there is today,” adds Halsey who points to the recently preserved 20 acre Smith property on Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton as a recent success.

“The tools are the same, but we’re tweaking the tools and making them work with today’s issues.”

“Through Farms and Fields” is at noon Sunday, August 4 at The Port of Missing Men in North Sea. The event honors Peter Salm and the conservation legacy of the Salm family and the Louis Bacon family. Master of Ceremonies is Chuck Scarborough. Tickets are $350 and available at 283-3195 ext. 19.

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