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Resisting Preservation

Posted on 06 April 2009

A clutch of Suffolk County legislators is opposing efforts to acquire land to preserve open space and safeguard the underground water table and to save farmland

—matters on which nearly all officeholders in Suffolk have agreed upon for decades. But citing the economic downturn, this grouping—oblivious to tourism and farming as mainstays of the Suffolk economy and dependent on a green environment—says Suffolk must call a halt to these preservation initiatives.

The view of a group of four and sometimes five members of the Suffolk Legislature—out of 18—prompted Legislator Edward Romaine to give an impassioned speech at the legislative meeting last week after, again, there was resistance to preservation measures.

 “I take a longer view,” said Mr. Romaine. The preservation efforts of Suffolk through the years have stopped the “suburban sprawl that has enveloped so much of our county.” Because of these initiatives “not every inch of the county has been developed” and “we saved our farmland.” There have been crises in the past, he noted, citing among them gas shortages and long lines at gas stations in the 1970s. But the county has consistently remained on a course of conservation. County government must not now “walk away from that,” said Mr. Romaine of Center Moriches.  As officials, he said, their prime responsibility is what “we will leave” for future generations.

A series of bills had just come up to preserve land and safeguard water on the East End and in Brookhaven Town, that part of Suffolk that has not been overtaken by  sprawl. As he has done at every legislative meeting for months, Legislator Cameron Alden, before each bill was to be voted upon, went on about tough economic times and how the county can no longer afford such expenditures. .

Mr. Alden of Islip and Thomas Barraga of West Islip are the most outspoken advocates of stopping preservation. They’re usually joined by Ricardo Montano of Central Islip and DuWayne Gregory of Amityville. About half the time, they’re also joined by William Lindsay, presiding officer of the legislature.

The tone is sometimes sarcastic. For instance, last week when the vote on one of the measures—to preserve seven acres in Sagaponack—was called, Mr. Lindsay quipped: “There’s a community, Sagaponack, really being paved out.”

Thanks to the efforts of community residents, environmentalists and enlightened officeholders, Sagaponack has not been paved over. It’s still the beautiful “Kansas with a sea breeze” that Truman Capote described when he lived there, an exquisite tapestry of farms and homes abutting the ocean.

Once I lived a few miles from Mr. Lindsay’s home in Holbrook. The area was beautiful and green back then in the 1960s. Then, suddenly, the bulldozers came and, in rapid order developments and shopping centers came to dominate the landscape. In the wake of this kind of thing, Suffolk officials—led by visionary County Executive John V. N. Klein, creator of a county farmland preservation program which has become a national model—began taking actions to not let this happen to everywhere in Suffolk.

Messrs. Alden, Barraga and company would end these efforts. If they succeed, destroyed would be what is central to Suffolk’s economy: a tourism industry that brings in $4.8 billion a year, along with farming that keeps Suffolk County the top agricultural county in the New York State in the value of its produce. The sprawled-over areas on Long Island no longer attract tourists and neither will what’s left—if it doesn’t stay green.

Moreover, the money used for preservation comes from funds set up by referenda—approved overwhelmingly time after time by county voters—which are not allowed to be used for any other purpose. Also, the amount spent annually represents “less than one percent of annual county expenditures,” notes Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Interestingly, his organization has polled Suffolk residents in recent months and most say that despite the economic situation they still “strongly want” preservation, he said. The claims of Messrs. Alden, Barraga and the others “don’t ring true to the public.” People on Long Island also understand, said Mr. Amper, that taxes skyrocket with development because services and infrastructure must be provided for the growth. He  added that “now is the perfect time for preservation” with prices low and “more willing sellers than ever.”

Legislator Jay Schneiderman is concerned, meanwhile, that the preservation opponents “are getting more votes now. It’s getting closer and closer.”

 “Our economy,” says Mr. Schneiderman of Montauk, “is interconnected with our environment. If we are going to see strong growth economically, it’s precisely because we’ve preserved the natural beauty of the area.” 

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