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Suffolk Closeup: Environmentalists sue preservation program

COURTESY PHOTO Legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming.
COURTESY PHOTO Legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming.

A local environmental organization has brought a lawsuit challenging the implementation of the Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program, a visionary concept that has been the key to saving an important and historical activity here and keeping Suffolk a top agricultural county in the state.

A State Supreme Court justice has ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which claimed that allowing “structures” on preserved farmland, permitted by amendments to the program approved by the Suffolk County Legislature, is not legal. The county is appealing this October decision by Justice Thomas Whelan.

If the ruling is allowed to stand it would “effectively gut the Farmland Preservation Program,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. “If farmers can’t do the things necessary to run a successful operation, we can’t have farming here anymore.”

At a press conference two weeks ago, outrage was expressed over what has happened. Among those present were numerous county legislators from western and central Suffolk including Dwayne Gregory (D-Amityville), the Legislature’s presiding officer, and  Rob Colarco (D-Patchogue), Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst, William Spencer (D-Centerport), Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset). Also there, of course, were Legislators Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and Bridget Fleming (Noyac) who represents Shelter Island.

The attendance of the representatives from up-Island demonstrated, said Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, “that this is not just about the East End — this is countywide.”

Mr. Carpenter, in his comments, stressed that “farmers need to have the ability to change with the times.” They need to have “structures for farm equipment, to protect animals” and greenhouses, among other buildings.

Mr. Krupski, who led the press conference and is a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer, said: “There is great diversity in agriculture, and not everyone understands what is needed to operate a productive farm or agricultural operation. Agriculture is changing. Different farming techniques, new technology and methods are emerging, along with the opportunities they present. Infrastructure needs may change. We need to adapt to accommodate these changes if we want to preserve agriculture and farming.”

John v.H.Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, said his organization “is very concerned about the recent court ruling and its impact on our local working farms so important to Long Island’s jobs and tourist economy.” Suffolk’s “landmark” Farm Preservation Program “is about assuring the future of farming and agricultural production first and foremost.

“Agricultural production by definition includes structures like barns, greenhouses and fences. Such structures are essential to the business of farming, and do not just benefit the farmer, but also the public, residents and visitors alike, who are afforded access to a wide variety of locally grown products, including food, wine and horticultural products,” he said. “In short, agriculture is a central component of Long Island’s history and community character from which all benefit.”

Riverhead farmer Mark Zaweski, a member of the Suffolk County Farmland Commission, said the lawsuit “has far-reaching consequences to the already burdened Suffolk County farmers. Equipment storage buildings, greenhouses to start young seedlings for early market sales as well as high tunnels to prolong the growing season are of utmost importance in today’s evolving agricultural industry … For equine and any animal production, shelters are required by law.”

If the ruling sticks, “farmers who have sold their development rights will have a difficult time continuing on, and those that haven’t will not even consider entering into the program, which then leaves those farms for possible development into more homes and subdivisions.”

The Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program, conceived by County Executive John V. N. Klein, is a brilliant program begun in 1974 based on what was then a first-in-the-nation idea: the purchase of “development rights” from farmers.

Farmers would be paid the difference between the value of their land if kept in agriculture and what it would bring if sold off for development. In return, the land is kept in agriculture in perpetuity. Some 10,636 farmland acres have been saved in Suffolk through the program. It has been emulated across the United States.

“The original intent of the program was to be a working land program,” noted Mr. Carpenter, a veteran of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

The lawsuit is misguided and needs to be overturned — to save Suffolk as a place of working farms. Mr. Krupski has formed a committee; among its members are land preservation specialists, local officials and farm representatives who are focusing on the best ways to address the lawsuit including new legislation on the county and state levels.