Column: Suffolk fighting for farmland preservation

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO A farm field being irrigated.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO A farm field being irrigated.

Suffolk County government is moving forcefully to appeal a judge’s decision seen as severely undermining the county’s Farmland Preservation Program. The government is also preparing new legislation to deal with issues raised in a lawsuit that resulted in the judge’s ruling.

County Executive Steve Bellone, in outlining the twin strategies, declared last month: “We believe that the findings in this lawsuit strike at the very heart of future agricultural success in Suffolk County and that the findings fail to recognize that support structures on agricultural land have always been an essential and inherent component of agricultural production … I want to ensure that Suffolk County’s vibrant agricultural industry continues for future generations.”

The lawsuit brought by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society argued that allowing accessory structures on farmland saved under the nationally-emulated Farmland Preservation Program was a violation of the program. The county argued that amendments to the program approved by the Suffolk Legislature in 2010 and 2013 allowed these new standards. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan agreed with the stance of the Pine Barrens Society.

But as Suffolk Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), who represents Shelter Island, stated at a January 11 press conference with Mr. Bellone: “Our goal is not to allow development on farmland. On the contrary, the goal is to prevent overdevelopment by preserving and supporting our working farms. Our critically important agricultural industry will only survive if farmers can undertake the basic practices that make a farm work and turn a profit. Row crops must be watered, protected from wildlife, and supported by machinery that needs to be stored. Our preservation program must allow for these basic practices that our legislation confirms.”

Also at the press conference was Vito Minei, former chief of the Office of Ecology in the county’s Department of Health Services and now executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Mr. Minei said “hopefully” the county’s appeal of the judge’s ruling plus the legislation will “prove successful in undoing the potentially devastating effects on agriculture that could result from the judgement.”

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), also a sponsor of the legislation, drew from his extensive experience as a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer, to note that accessory structures are needed on farms. Mr. Krupski’s district includes both Riverhead and Southold towns.

A statement from the county executive’s office said that “farmland protection programs across the state and across the nation all recognize that farming requires accessory support structures including greenhouses, barns, fences, animal pens and farm stands to maintain the economic viability of the agricultural operation. Accessory structures have always been essential to the art and science of agriculture. They are inherent and necessary components of agricultural production and working agricultural lands.”

The county is hiring the Riverhead law firm of Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin & Quartararo, well-known for environmental litigation, to represent it in the appeal at a cost, if necessary, of up to $100,000.

The Suffolk Farmland Preservation Program has been a key to saving an important and historical activity here and keeping Suffolk a top agricultural county in the state which also encourages tourism. It was initiated in 1974 under County Executive John V.N. Klein and has saved 10,750 farm acres. The basis for the program — a first-in-the-nation concept — is the purchase of “development rights.” Owners of agricultural land are paid the difference between the land’s value as farmland and it being developed. The land must then remain in agriculture in perpetuity.

The legislation, advanced by the county executive, Mr. Krupski and Ms. Fleming, sums up the situation well. It begins by stating that “Suffolk has worked assiduously since the early 1970s to preserve and protect the county’s farmland resource, agricultural industry and heritage” with “the most important tool in the county’s agricultural preservation effort” being the “pioneering” purchase of development rights.

The program “has been amended and updated…in order to stay current with changing practices in the agricultural industry and to ensure the program’s continued success.”

The judge’s “ruling upset a consensus on farming practices that was reached by the county’s policy makers after years of careful deliberation with all interested stakeholders.” It “will severely undermine the county’s farmland preservation efforts.”

Farmers in the preservation program, the legislation states, “are unsure what actions they may take to sustain production on their lands, and farmers who were considering entering the program are now hesitant to do so. Further, this legislature finds that the uncertainty surrounding the program’s future makes it more likely that thousands of acres of unprotected farmland will be converted into non-agricultural uses.” Thus this “clarifying legislation” is being brought forward “to allow the county’s farmland program to continue functioning.”

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