September 13, 2006

County Spotlights North Fork Preservation

Only days after Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell unveiled a new proposal for a program that would protect active farmland and could provide a promising future for proponents of open space preservation and farming across the board, the county stepped forward with its own plans to preserve valuable acres of open space and farmland for posterity.

Suffolk County Legislator Edward Romaine announced this week his support for three resolutions sponsored by County Executive Steve Levy that would preserve 710 acres of farmland and open space in Riverhead and Southold.

Romaine is a co-sponsor of all three resolutions.

"Suffolk County is the number one agricultural county in the State of New York," said Romaine. "It's vital that we preserve our remaining acres of farmland so we can continue to be number one."

The first resolution is a "planning steps" resolution that will begin the acquisition process for the development rights on 727 acres of farmland countywide. Approximately 700 of the 727 acres are located in the Town of Riverhead.

Two additional resolutions authorize the acquisition of 10 acres of open space in the Town of Southold on Hashamomuck Pond.

All three resolutions were before the environment, planning and agriculture committees of the county legislature on Monday, as this publication went to press. If approved out of committee, they will be eligible for a vote from the entire legislature at the general meeting next Tuesday in Riverhead.

In Southold, Russell presented his plan for a Targeted Farmland Protection Program. It would create a new fund that will allow the town to purchase, outright, farmland that's on the market, then cleanse the parcel of development rights and resell the land into an affordable farmland program.

"Currently, we have no open space or protection programs that allows us to do that," said Russell. The problem, pointed out the supervisor, is that, currently, if the town were to use its open space money to acquire an at-risk farm, the land would have to be used for open space purposes. The end result, he said, is that the town "cannot save farmland without removing it from the inventory of active farmland."

That's a situation Russell is determined to change. Although he first proposed the measure as a town assessor in 1994, Russell said, at the time, the idea "was not embraced" by the town board.

This time around, Russell's hoping for support for a fund that would provide great benefits to both the town and farmers struggling to survive in today's market.

Currently, a farmer must own the land in order to sell development rights. "Current real estate markets make it impossible for the farmer to acquire the land," said Russell. The new plan would allow the town to buy the development rights before the farmer subsequently takes title. "The town would no longer have to be a bystander in the process."

Instead, the town could utilize the fund to purchase farmland and then resell the parcel to an active farmer "at a greatly reduced price." A key goal, said the supervisor, is to keep a farmer's purchase price "under $10,000 per acre," or even as low as under $8,000 an acre,

The supervisor presented his concept to the town board last week and although they were supportive of the idea, Justice Louisa Evans felt there was not enough time to bring the issue to a public referendum this November.

The supervisor, however, is thankful to the county for the mutual efforts at preservation — integral to protecting the North Fork's most precious resource for posterity.

"I'm grateful to the county for their continuing efforts to preserve farmland and open space. They've been good partners in the past and I look forward to a good, long relationship in our mutual efforts at preservation and environmental protection."

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