June 21, 2006
Playing Politics With Preservation?
County Executive Steve Levy has often described Suffolk's farmland preservation efforts as "second to none." But if the actions of his Democratic majority on the legislature last week are a harbinger of things to come, on the East End, land preservation may soon move from second-to-none to just plain "none." Amid complaints that a disproportionate amount of money is spent on land acquisitions on the East End, last week lawmakers squashed a proposal that could have seen over 400 acres of North Fork farmland preserved.
To Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, it was "a dark day for the environment." Just the week before he dismissed threats to curtail open space spending on the East End in an effort to silence Republican squeaky wheel Legislators Jay Schneiderman and Ed Romaine as nothing but a bluff.
It appears he was mistaken. During its regular session in Hauppauge on June 6, all but one member of the Democratic majority killed Romaine's Master List IV proposal. Vivian Fisher of Setauket, who is running for county clerk on the Democratic ticket, supported the measure.
If adopted, the bill would have initiated planning steps towards the acquisition of 40 individual parcels on the North Fork, such as the Terry Farm in Orient, 30 acres adjacent to Budd's Pond in Southold, and 100 acres along Sound Avenue in Baiting Hollow. Planning steps include contacting property owners expressing interest in public purchases as well as undertaking surveys and appraisals.
Debate was heated, with Majority Caucus Leader Jon Cooper (D., Lloyd Harbor) leading the attack. Citing unanimous approval by the legislature's environment committee, plus endorsement by the county's real estate and planning departments, and approval from the county's farmland committee, Romaine moved for adoption of the list. Cooper called to table it. At first, he balked at explaining why.
Pressed, the lawmaker said, "I'm increasingly concerned that as a representative of taxpayers in western Suffolk County, we're spending too much — spending too much money acquiring land in eastern Suffolk County." He's asked for an audit of expenditures and said that until he's assured there isn't "an unfair redistribution of wealth" from the west end to the East End he was hesitant to approve the acquisition of so many acres of land.
Romaine countered, reminding Cooper that he'd voted in favor of three prior Master Lists developed by the county executive, each calling for the preservation of East End properties. Voting against the fourth list would "change the course and policy and direction of this county for the last 30-some odd years," he asserted.
"Quite frankly, this is really smacking of blatant partisanship," Republican minority leader Dan Losquadro of Shoreham, declared. Cooper next asked, "To what extent should the towns in the five eastern towns bear the responsibility for open space acquisition?" They've "got a lot of money on their own," he added.
Admitting he was shocked that Cooper would stall an acquisition simply because the property is on the East End and not on its merits, Jay Schneiderman said, "Yes. We may have money. But it's only because we've taxed ourselves through the community preservation fund."
Later during the session, Cooper called for the tabling of another Romaine acquisition — of active parkland in Riverhead Town. Asked again to explain why, he refused, prompting impassioned chastisement from Legislator Joe Caracappa (R., Selden): "We as a body should not be playing politics with land acquisitions whether it's in Montauk or Melville, on the south shore or the north shore. There's only a limited amount of space left in this county. And to start playing politics with land acquisition has been almost like an unwritten sin around this horseshoe. We just don't do it."
Legislator Elie Mystal (D., Amityville) said the measure would only be stalled for one committee cycle to answer Cooper's questions.
Caracappa wasn't having it. Land purchases are all time sensitive, he said. "And to wait one cycle or two cycles just on — just in an effort to cut a deal on either sales tax or gasoline or whatever else may be dictating this today is wrong," the former presiding officer argued.
Cooper admitted the effort by both East End legislators to cap the county's gasoline sales tax prompted his reluctance to approve East End open space expenditures. The county would lose millions in revenue should the tax cap win approval. The shortfall would have to be offset somehow, Cooper explained. If it comes down to choosing between closing a healthcare clinic in his district and cutting back on East End open space purchases, he'd choose the latter, he said. That's what his constituents would want, Cooper said.
He's wrong, according to Amper. On Friday, the environmentalist checked Board of Elections records and reported that residents in the Town of Huntington, which hosts Cooper's district, approved the county's $75 million open space referendum by a greater majority than residents of the county as a whole. "They want the land," Amper said. "There's not much of it in Huntington, so they must want it preserved somewhere. Generally speaking the people who have lost open space are the most supportive of it."
"We are deeply disturbed and disappointed in a legislator who heretofore had a great environmental record and appears to be playing politics," Amper said. "This is not a government we're proud of."
During his oration, Caracappa made reference to occasions under the Republican majority when acquisition efforts sponsored by the county executive were tabled in committee only to reappear subsequently under GOP sponsorship. It's called "bill-napping." In interviews with The Independent after taking office in January, both Cooper and Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D. Holbrook) both vowed they would eschew such partisan machinations. However, The Independent has learned that planning steps resolutions for the properties included in Romaine's Master List are being drawn up, and could be eligible for a vote as early as the next regular session on Tuesday. This time, they will carry Democratic sponsorship.