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Renown Farmland-Preservation Program Threatened by Lawsuit

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The Farmland Preservation Program in Suffolk County on Long Island, New York, was a breakthrough for farmland preservation not only on Long Island but across the United States.

The visionary, first-in-the-nation program, predicated on the then-new idea when it was initiated in 1974 of purchase-of-development rights from farmers, has been emulated across the nation.

Thus it is shocking that an environmental organization based on Long Island has brought a lawsuit challenging the implementation of the program.

The program has been the key to saving the important and historical farming industry on Long Island and keeping Suffolk a top agricultural county in New York State--and has since led to similarly vital farmland preservation elsewhere in the U.S.

However, in October, a New York State Supreme Court justice ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society with its office in Riverhead, Long Island, which claimed that allowing "structures" on preserved farmland, permitted by amendments to the program approved by the Suffolk legislature, was not legal. Suffolk County is appealing this decision by Justice Thomas Whelan.

If the ruling is allowed to stand it would "effectively gut the Farmland Preservation Program," says 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 Suffolk County legislators including Dwayne Gregory of Amityville, the presiding officer of the legislature, Sarah Anker of Mount Sinai, Rob Colarco of Patchogue, Kate Browning of Shirley, Dr. William Spencer of Centerport, Kevin McCaffrey of Lindenhurst, Leslie Kennedy of Nesconset, Bridget Fleming of Noyac, and Al Krupski of Cutchogue.

The attendance of lawmakers from all over Suffolk County demonstrated, said Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, "that this is not just about the East End--this is countywide."

Indeed, having farms in Suffolk County has long been integral to the county.

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 County 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, headquartered in Southampton, said the Land Trust "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" and, "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. In short, agriculture is a central component of Long Island's history and community character from which all benefit."

Farmer Mark Zaweski of Riverhead, 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, utilizes the then novel idea of purchase of development rights from farmers. Farmers are 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 County through the program.

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

The lawsuit is misguided and needs to be overturned to save Suffolk County as a place of working farms and to prevent attacks on copies of the Suffolk Farmland Preservation Program across the country.

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Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and host of the nationally syndicated TV program Enviro Close-Up.
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