Farmland Under Attack

Posted on 27 January 2012

By Karl Grossman

“It’s like back to the past—let the bulldozers roll,” says an outraged legislator Edward Romaine about the negative stance of some members of the Suffolk Legislature towards the county’s farmland, open space and drinking water preservation programs. “We have legislators who would shut down our preservation programs.”

The legislators, who include Democrats and Republicans and include the presiding officer of the legislature, Bill Lindsay, cite the economic situation.

Suffolk’s nationally-noted open space program was begun by the first county executive, H. Lee Dennison, in 1961. The farmland preservation program— based on the then new idea of purchase of development rights from farmers and since replicated through the U.S.—was launched in 1974 by his successor, John V.N. Klein. In 1987, County Executive Michael Lo Grande initiated the Drinking Water Protection Program to safeguard Suffolk’s sole source of potable water. The programs have been credited with preventing the sprawl that covers much of western Long Island from enveloping its east. Still, through the years a few Suffolk legislators have been critical of them, despite continued and strong support by the public countywide.

Legislator Thomas Barraga of West Islip said at a legislative meeting last month: “If anything, this should be stopped, at least for the present time until things improve, improve economically. Sure, the scenario is, well, this is the right time to buy, because land is cheap. But most of the constituents that I have are really hurting financially. They don’t understand what we’re doing.”

Before the panel December 20th were two ostensibly routine resolutions: dispersal of funds in the Drinking Water Protection Program raised through the county sales tax and restricted to program use for a 57-acre second phase of preserving the Sylvester Manor farm on Shelter Island and also purchase of 150 acres in Riverhead.

“I’m very concerned about the amount of money that we have going forward and we just continue to buy these huge, huge parcels,” complained Mr. Lindsay of Holtsville as the $4.8 million Sylvester Manor development rights purchase, a joint effort by Suffolk and Shelter Island, came up.

Mr. Romaine of Center Moriches, whose district includes Shelter Island and Riverhead, explained how Sylvester Manor “has tremendous historical significance, and has been the subject of many years of archaeological digs. This is an active farm that has been actively farmed for over 300 years. This goes back to the very history of Shelter Island.” With the second phase, the 241-acre farm would be saved. Moreover, Mr. Romaine spoke about how in eight separate referenda Suffolk voters had approved “what we’re doing here today.”

The legislature approved the Sylvester Manor resolution, but then the $8.8 million purchase of the land in Riverhead, with the title Long Island Beagle Club, was called. “This is a lot of money here again,” protested Legislator Wayne Horsley of Babylon.

Mr. Romaine noted that the property has been rated “a high priority acquisition not only by the Town of Riverhead but by a number of environmental organizations…We have…money that’s existed for a special purpose that’s been designated not once, but eight times, by the voters…to acquire open space.” He spoke of people not wanting “to see the march of development that has started in the west and marched east continue to the two points of the island.”

A new legislator, Sarah Anker of Mt. Sinai, with background as an environmentalist, reinforced his plea—and sounded a positive economic note. Ms. Anker declared: “In looking at the broader perspective at land preservation, the voters voted to put money aside to buy open space….When we preserve open space we…maintain the character of our communities and we have farmland, we have vineyards…People go there, they come from all over the world…and they spend money…And the people and the county benefit from that.”

Still, Mr. Lindsay spoke of how “I’m seriously considering putting before…the voters, because of the very tough fiscal condition…suspending the land acquisition program and using it to keep the county afloat.”

A vote on the Riverhead resolution was tabled. Mr. Romaine intends to bring it back in coming weeks. “There are people who want to over-develop this county—to build, build, build. I will fight this!” he says. He could use your assistance. A letter, phone call or email to your Suffolk legislator would help a lot.

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