Key moment for land preservation in Suffolk County

02/17/2012 7:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | This farmland at the western entrance of Reeves park is in contract to be sold for open space preservation.

Suffolk lawmakers are feuding over the fate of the county’s water quality program now that its funding has reached a crossroads.

As of November, the county can no longer borrow against projected revenue for open space acquisitions through its drinking water protection program, created in 1987 to safeguard water supplies by purchasing environmentally sensitive lands to prevent development.

Although the program is funded by a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax, the latest version of the bill approved in 2007 included a provision allowing the county to accelerate the program by floating bonds, to be paid for with future tax revenues, through November 2011. Now that the accelerated provision’s deadline has passed, the county will have to acquire land through its “pay-go,” or pay-as-you-go account.

An estimated $5 million of next year’s fund will be allocated for open space purchases, county officials said.

That’s a small number compared to last year’s open space buys, which on one purchase alone saw the county partner with Riverhead Town to purchase some 300 acres at the North Fork Preserve property in Northville for $18.3 million. Over the course of the accelerated program’s history — from 2007 until the end of 2011 — Suffolk acquired about 2,200 acres of open space. County officials could not immediately comment on how much the county spent on open space last year or how much it expects to spend this year.

But all spending would come to a temporary halt under a bill sponsored by Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), which would freeze land acquisitions for 90 days. Ms. Hahn said the 90 days would also give the county’s planning department time to re-prioritize its “master list,” which is the county’s internal list of parcels targeted for acquisition, and figure out a better method for considering purchase proposals.

“Knowing that we’re going to have so little to spend for open space next year, we shouldn’t have it as ‘first come, first serve’ anymore,” Ms. Hahn said, explaining that under the current system, parcels move through the acquisition process in the order they’re introduced by lawmakers. “It should go by which parcel is the most environmentally sensitive.”

Deals where the seller has already signed a contract with the county would be exempt from the 90-day delay.

READ ABOUT LOCAL DEALS IN CONTRACT

That includes the pending purchase of the Long Island Beagle Club’s 150 acres on the west side of Edwards Avenue in Calverton. The club, founded in 1932, once trained hunting beagles there. In 2006, a developer was under contract to buy the land and create 73 clustered residential lots but that deal fell through.

It’s that acquisition, which has been stalled in the Legislature, that sparked a public debate about the entire status of the land acquisition program late last year. Environmentalists, such as Richard Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, have pointed to the environmental merits of acquiring the Beagle Club property despite the findings of a legislative committee, which ranked the property low on its 1-to-100 scoring chart.

County Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) is sponsoring a resolution to finalize the $8.9 million sale. He had to reintroduce his bill last month because he failed to get it through by the end of 2011. The bill was tabled Jan. 30 by the Legislature’s environment, planning and  agriculture committee, chaired by Ms. Hahn.

Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D-Holbrook), while considering the measure in December, said that the county doesn’t have to spend the funds just because “the pot of money is there.” He added that he was “seriously considering” asking the lawmakers to set a referendum on allowing the county to suspend the acquisition program and use the funds for other purposes. He wasn’t immediately available for comment this week.

During the Legislature’s most recent meeting in Hauppauge on Feb. 7, Mr. Amper voiced his opposition to the county using funds slated for water quality for any other reasons.

He said he got the feeling some lawmakers believed that “if we merely stopped protecting drinking water and preserving open space, somehow or other the recession would miss us and the budget would be balanced.

“[But], of course, that’s not right,” he said. “The public put this money up for a specific purpose. It can’t be used for any other purpose.”

In an interview last week, Peconic baykeeper Kevin McAllister said the county should take care not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” in rethinking the drinking water protection program.

“If there’s issues with the scoring process for acquisition, then the county should take a look at it and fix it,” he said. “You can’t just discard the whole program.”

Ms. Hahn’s bill to delay land acquisition purchases for 90 days will be discussed at a public hearing set for March 13 in Riverhead.

jennifer@timesreview.com

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