Hardy Plumbing
April 26, 2006

Levy Earmarks Oodle$$ For The Environment

Independent / Kitty Merrill A LEGACY OF LAND: County Executive Steve Levy discusses his Environmental Legacy Fund, which could mean an extra $50 million over the next three years for open space and farmland preservation. With partners, the funding could swell to $100 million. (click for larger version)
Steve Levy doesn't commit money he doesn't plan to spend. That was the message Dick Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society read in Suffolk's notoriously tight fisted county executive's capital budget. Released earlier this month, the financial roadmap earmarks $50 million for open space and farmland preservation over a three-year period. Levy has dubbed the program the Environmental Legacy Fund.

"It's a really good sign," Amper commented. "It means the county is finally bringing its land acquisition program up to speed."

There's "no way" the prior administration would have made such a spending vow, the environmentalist put forth. Under the tutelage of former County Executive Bob Gaffney, Suffolk's open space program became mired in scandal and languished. Now, said Amper, "These folks are anticipating that they're going to be buying land at a rate of 2000 acres a year. That's four times the previous administration's effort."

There's just one caveat. The money is promised as a match to what lawmakers at other levels of government — town, state or federal — contribute toward any one purchase. If, for example, a town puts up half the cost, Suffolk will come in with the balance.

According to Levy's environmental czar Mike Deering, in 2004, 25% of the county's public purchases were undertaken with partners from other levels of government. Last year 50% of Suffolk's acquisitions were completed through partnerships. "That's a clear indication that the process now established in a cooperative fashion between the county executive and the legislature is effective." Suffolk has worked well with a number of towns, Deering reported. "We obviously want to build on that."

"This pleases me no end," extolled Scott Wilson, land acquisition manager for East Hampton Town. "There's no better way to acquire property, especially at the prices here on the East End, than through partnerships." The Environmental Legacy Fund concept is "fantastic," Wilson praised.

Increasing the number of partners working with the county on preservation is a priority, Deering explained. And, as with Amsterdam Beach in Montauk and the WJF property in Westhampton, the larger the holding, the more opportunity there is for partnering, he pointed out. Leveraging taxpayer dollars through the Environmental Legacy Fund will hopefully generate more partnerships with the state. "We want to get the federal government involved, too," Deering said, summarizing "every dollar we leverage is a benefit to the taxpayers. "

Amper believes more and more voters are embracing what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: "Our economy is our environment and our environment is our economy." Communities have begun to realize that keeping land on the tax rolls doesn't equate to lower taxes because of the volume of municipal services development demands. "Preserving open space makes sense for taxes because deer don't go to school," Amper pronounced. "If you don't love it because it protects the groundwater and habitat, you love it because it protects your wallet."

Whichever the reason, voters demonstrated that "love" in 2004, with the overwhelming passage of a $75 million bond act to fund county open space purchases. In his state of the county speech earlier this year, Levy noted that, thanks to the bond passage and his administration's aggressive stance, county preservation programs have reaped "extraordinary" results, with nearly 3000 acres protected in just two years. However, he predicted the money will run out next year "before our work is done."

"We owe it to our grandchildren to finish the job" he continued, debuting the legacy fund concept. With Suffolk matching money put up by other municipalities, a total of $100 million could be used to protect open space and farmland.

Beyond the bond, the county currently funds preservation purchases through about a dozen different programs, Deering explained. With the preservation program kicked into high gear, money in those programs is dwindling fast. Suffolk spent $47 million on acquisitions last year, with another 725 acres expected to go to closing in the first quarter of 2006.

Early on in his administration, Levy directed staff to work with representatives from other municipalities and environmental organizations to compile a Master List of properties that could be eyed for purchase. Since the first list was adopted, Levy has brought forth two additional lists, for a total of 9000 environmentally sensitive parcels under scrutiny for saving. Given the fluid nature of negotiations, it's difficult to nail down exactly how many properties are in the hopper for purchase at present, Deering said. The ever-shifting list includes "a universe of properties" in varying stages of negotiations, he said.

The adoption of Master Lists by the legislature involved a measure of negotiation as well. Some political foes resisted adopting the list because it initiated the earliest acquisition steps on any land listed, meaning individual lawmakers couldn't garner the positive PR offered in announcing their own efforts to buy a property in their districts. The plans ultimately passed once lawmakers were assured they'd be included when press conference time rolled around.

The legislature will begin its debate on Levy's capital budget, which includes the Environmental Legacy Fund, next month.

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