Editorial: Farmland bill debate at least raises questions

07/11/2013 8:00 AM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | A memory and a roadside attraction at Reeves Farm in Aquebogue.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | A memory and roadside attraction at Reeves Farm.

Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper and 1st District county Legislator Al Krupski have been engaged in a public battle in recent weeks over Mr. Krupski’s draft of legislation that would give farmland preservation a guaranteed 50 percent of whatever land protection money the county has at its disposal, which these days isn’t much.

In keeping with his public persona, Mr. Amper wrote an opinion piece, published in this newspaper last month, in which he accused the legislator of a nefarious scheme to undermine the county’s tried-and-true land preservation program. He went as far as to suggest that Mr. Krupski deserves the name “Korruptski.” In a response published the following week, the legislator took a more low-key approach and discussed the need to preserve active farmland.

All of this ignores the geopolitical forces at play. The East End has only two representatives in the 18-member Suffolk County Legislature, crucial numbers given that when new legislation is laid on the table the first thought that comes to many lawmakers’ minds is, “How does this benefit my district?” When the topic is farmland preservation, the answer for 16 representatives is, “It doesn’t.” To be fair, there would be no county farmland program without the support of non-farming communities, who realized that losing productive, valuable agricultural land would be a blow to the entire county, not just a few East End towns.

Mr. Krupski’s bill would upset the political equilibrium that gives all of Suffolk, particularly the West End towns that dominate the Legislature, a shot at open space buys, even if for only a tiny parcel.

Putting the politics and strident criticism aside, the Krupski bill raises an important and timely question: What lands should be protected going forward?

Mr. Amper has led the opposition to allowing greenhouses to be built on preserved land, a position we share. It’s true, the days of the old-time farmer riding a tractor through row crops are all but a memory, and growers must have the flexibility to respond to a changing market. But preserving open space is a key component of county and town farmland programs.

Mr. Amper also correctly points out that some farms have fallen into uses that no one imagined when the county created the nation’s first ag preservation program in the 1970s. Some wineries, for example, are little more than catering halls; others are open-air saloons. And when objections are raised, we’re often told that the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which has the power to override local land use regulations, sets virtually no limits on what commercial activities can occur on farmland.

The Krupski bill forces the issue of how much money should be invested in new farmland preservation projects and what new restrictions, if any, should follow. It’s not a question of restricting farm operations; it’s a matter of better defining which farms fit in with the public protection goals.

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