By Karl Grossman
Suffolk County government is moving forcefully to appeal a judge’s decision seen as severely undermining the county’s Farmland Preservation Program and also with new legislation overcome issues raised in a lawsuit that resulted in the 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 held that allowing structures on farmland saved under the landmark and nationally-emulated Farmland Preservation Program was a violation of the program. This was permitted by amendments to the program approved by the Suffolk Legislature in 2010 and 2013. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan agreed with the stance of the Pine Barrens Society.
But as Suffolk Legislator Bridget Fleming of stated at the press conference January 11th 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, our legislation confirms.”
Also at the press conference, 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, 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 of Cutchogue, also a sponsor of the legislation, drew from his extensive experience as a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer, to tell of how accessory structures are needed on farms.
A statement from the county executive’s office noted 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 law firm of Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin & Quartararo of Riverhead, 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 of Smithtown and has saved 10,750 farm acres. Mr. Klein is a former Smithtown Town supervisor and a county legislator representing Smithtown and was the first presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature.
The basis for the program—a first-in-the-nation concept—is 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 stating that “Suffolk has worked assiduously since the early 1970’s 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” 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 policymakers after years of careful deliberation with all interested stakeholders.” It “will severely undermine the county’s farmland preservation efforts.”
Farmers in the preservation program “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”—spelling out how limited and neceded structures can be on preserved farmland—is being brought forward “to allow the county’s farmland program to continue functioning.”
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.