A plan to sell development rights to a parcel of land owned by an affiliate of the Peconic Land Trust to Southampton Town has drawn significant opposition.
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The 14-acre parcel of active farmland on Highland Terrace in Bridgehampton is owned by the South Fork Land Foundation, which is closely aligned with the PLT – its boards have intermingled members over the years.
Paul Brennan, a Sagaponack resident and Bridgehampton native who has clashed with the PLT before, has spearheaded the opposition. He has a powerful ally in Richard Amper, the Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens.
He said using Community Preservation Funds for the purchase – which Southampton Town plans to do – would set a dangerous precedent. "Our position has less to do with the deal and more to do with the implications," Amper said. The people voted for the CPF tax with the understanding it would be used to preserve land in addition to what is being preserved by organizations like the PLT and the Nature Conservancy. "The CPF supplements what they do," Amper opined. "Ultimately the people will lose confidence."
Assemblyman Fred Thiele, one of the original architects of the plan, pointed out legally the deal can be made legally. "There is no legal issue, but there may be a perception problem. It's up to each town." When the CPF was first enacted the PLT took an active role in administering the program in some of the towns, particularly East Hampton. Because of that "there is some confusion – people think CPF money goes to the Peconic Land Trust," Thiele said.
As the years went by the towns began to manage their own CPF, and the PLT continued to acquire land as well. "Basically, they have the same goal," Thiele said.
"Somehow John [v. H.] Halsey has concocted a story that farmers can no longer afford to farm, even on agricultural land," Brennan said. The truth is, Brennan charged, is very little farmland is used to grow food. "It's all smoke and mirrors," Brennan said.
Halsey, the president of the PLT furnished a written response to The Independent. He said the sale "will enable the SFLF to acquire 60 to 100 additional acres that can be made available to farmers for lease or purchase at affordable prices."
Though Halsey said much of the town's protected farmland remains unaffordable for farmers to plant, Brennan maintained many of the same farmers sold their development rights but have not invested the money they received back into farming.
The Highland Terrace property was gifted in 1978 "without restrictions so that the donor could take full advantage of the charitable gift," Halsey said. "As such, it represents an asset to further the SFLF's public benefit purpose, to conserve working farms, a purpose that is completely consistent with the CPF. Rather than sell the property, the SFLF Board authorized the sale of development rights to the town, a win-win situation for all," he added. But Brennan said it's a loss for the public, because CPF money is being used to preserve a parcel many people assumed already was preserved.
Brennan and Halsey have butted heads before – in 2011 the PLT agreed to move a house onto a parcel of farmland it owned in Sagaponack and subsequently sold it. Halsey said the house, on Halsey Lane, has historical value because of its rare architectural style, known as a "four-square" farmhouse and that the PLT saved it from destruction. Brennan scoffed, saying in jest, "Yeah, there are only about 500,000 four squares left." He said in reality PLT wanted to do a developer a favor and make some money in the process. It has since been sold, though the original structure was saved, there have been extensive additions to it, and the one-acre of farmland has been basically covered with outbuildings, a pool, pool house, garage, and tennis court.
Brennan fears the deal will set a precedent – that more CPF money will flow to the PLT, SFLT, and other similar conservation not-for-profits. In fact, he said there is a similar parcel across the street from the one in question that could meet a similar fate.
"In the last 15 years, Massachusetts and Vermont added an Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV) to many of its development rights purchases," Halsey countered. "This and other restrictions have been used to great effect by local governments and land trusts alike to assure that protected farmland is available to farmers at prices they can afford."