Suffolk Closeup: Going ‘wild and crazy’ for preservation

REPORTER FILE PHOTO A look at the origin of the Community Preservation Fund real estate transfer tax.
REPORTER FILE PHOTO A look at the origin of the Community Preservation Fund real estate transfer tax.

The model for the Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund, which has become a key to the preservation of eastern Long Island and reached $1 billion this year, got its start when Bill Klein arrived on Nantucket in 1974 and saw the island “subdividing at a rate of 500 lots a year, most on 2 and 3 acre lots.”

Raised in Syosset, he had seen the mess that sprawl had made in the community and much of western Long Island. Mr. Klein, with a degree in planning from Penn State, also had an influence on his uncle, John V. N. Klein, who between 1972 and 1979 was Suffolk County executive. Mr. Klein recalls many family dinners with his Uncle John where  “we’d chat about growth on Long Island” and what could be done to counter development sprawl. A central point was that “if you are really serious about preserving the rural character and guiding growth around existing villages, and stopping it cold elsewhere, you would have to strike out and do wild and crazy things.”

His Uncle John would create a landmark preservation undertaking, the Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program, a first-in-the-nation plan to save farmland based on purchase of development rights. It’s been emulated across the nation.

When a 27-year-old Bill Klein arrived on Nantucket as its first planner, “there was really a kind of emergency going on,” he said, in the form of a development explosion. This is where “wild and crazy” came into being with the idea of a 2-percent real estate transfer tax paid by the buyer with proceeds dedicated to acquiring and preserving land. It was derived from a 1-percent transfer tax utilized for general revenue purposes that Mr. Klein knew about in his prior job as a planner in Pennsylvania.

To bring the idea of a transfer tax to Nantucket was “a daunting task,” he remembered, with a “consensus-building process” launched that included, in 1982, a three-day symposium on what Nantucket was “going to look like in 20 years.” Among those coming to Nantucket to speak at the symposium was John V. N. Klein.

A special law had to be passed by the Massachusetts Legislature. “Mike Dukakis was governor and he was strongly in favor,” Mr. Klein said. “One reason was that he and Kitty got married on Nantucket and he had a warm and fuzzy feeling about the island.”

The tax was approved with “near unanimity” by voters on Nantucket. It took effect in 1984. And that year, then East Hampton Town Supervisor Judith Hope, on a trip to Nantucket with her husband, the late attorney and environmental activist, Tom Twomey, read about it and brought the concept back to Long Island.

A huge roadblock to clear was getting approval from the New York State Assembly. “The statewide real estate lobby had come out against it in full force,” Ms. Hope said. “It was a long and difficult struggle.”

But in the 1990s she became New York State Democratic chair and personally interceded with longtime State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, well-known for his tight grip on the movement of all legislation.

“It was the only thing I asked him for in my life,” recounts Ms. Hope. “I told him it could be a great legacy for you to be involved in saving thousands of acres of open space on eastern Long Island.”

So the measure got to the Assembly floor and passed, spearheaded by Assemblymen Fred Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor and Tom DiNapoli (now state comptroller) of Great Neck Plaza, then chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.

It had earlier passed the State Senate with Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) as its sponsor. Successful referenda were then held in each of the five East End towns.

“All things came together at a magic moment,” Ms. Hope said. And the 2-percent transfer tax, with funds raised going for open space, farmland and historical preservation, “has had profound and beneficial consequences for eastern Long Island,” she added.

It took effect in 1999 and has saved 10,000 acres so far. The Nantucket program, which has raised $286 million, has had a big part in preserving half of the island.

In addition to coming to Long Island, versions of the Nantucket plan have been adopted in places including Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island and Little Compton, Rhode Island. Mr. Klein said through the years he has given “talks around the United States” about the plan. But “getting their legislators to commit” to the concept was “mind-boggling.” Still, where it “has had application, it’s been dynamite.”

Surely, it’s a preservation initiative that should be adopted all over the U.S.
Senator LaValle, whose district includes Shelter Island, commented last week that “the Community Preservation is a mechanism that has enabled us to protect the East End’s environmental treasures. The CPF has been a tremendous success in preserving the lands and natural resources that are critically important for Long Island.”

This is the second of a two-part series on the origin of the Community Preservation Fund.