Christmas came early for Suffolk County voters in the form of a New York State Supreme Court decision on preserving farmland. In a lawsuit brought by our Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Justice Thomas Whelan ruled in October that Suffolk County politicians couldn’t permit development on farmland from which the county purchased development rights. Let me explain.
In an effort to protect fertile soils, prevent permanent structures and maintain scenic vistas, Suffolk voters in 2007 approved a referendum authorizing county officials to pay farmers not to develop their property. This would ensure that the East End’s rural ambience would be preserved and farmers compensated so they could go on farming instead of extending suburban sprawl out to the North and South forks. This was good.
But not for long. In 2010 and 2013 the Suffolk County Legislature — at the encouragement of the agriculture lobby — changed the law to permit development on land the farmers had been paid not to develop. Hey, wait! That’s not what we voted for and it’s not right. Actually, it isn’t just not right – it’s against the law.
Justice Whelan concluded that any law created by voters at referendum can only be altered by a subsequent referendum — not by politicians and the agriculture lobby. The court concluded that farmers could develop their land or they could be paid to preserve it, but not both.
Why is this so important? Well, for one thing, the court ruling was a victory for voters and for democracy. But it’s also a victory for preservation of open space and farmland. If lobbyists and politicians can get away with changing the rules established by voters and taxpayers, then we’re not likely to further invest in open space and farmland. That would be a tragedy.
Suffolk residents are paying two-and-a-half times the national average in taxes — more than two billion dollars since 1998 to preserve land and protect underground water supplies. How likely are we to continue to invest in our land and water if special interests and the politicians who do their bidding say “April Fools” after we approve preservation, then allow the land we want to save to be developed anyway? The public voted to preserve farmland, not to provide welfare to the agriculture industry. Real farmers should be very concerned if the public stops voting to protect farms.
Of course, some “farmers” were unhappy with the court decision. They wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. Some complained that the court decision would prevent the construction of deer fences or “hoop houses,” which allow growing to start earlier in the season. Of course, neither of these are permanent structures so they don’t constitute development. The court case never sought to prevent their use.
Others whined that the court decision would undercut the growing of fresh food we all appreciate. Most Long Islanders don’t know it, but only 20 percent of the money generated from farming on Long Island comes from food production. The rest goes to solar “farms,” nitrogen-polluting sod, ornamental shrubbery and — my personal least favorite — “agricultural tourism,” including catering halls and entertainment venues. Don’t get me wrong; if a land owner wants to get into the tourism business and the zoning permits it, he or she is free to do that. But not if they have been paid by us taxpayers not to develop the land!
Straight-shooting farmers are even permitted to carve out a portion of their farm for future development and sell the development rights to the county, only on the land they intend to continue to farm. We’ve got no problem with that, either.
So after the people’s court victory, what did the politicians and agriculture industry do?
Well, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone promptly said he would appeal the court decision and the ag lobby promised to get the decision overturned by other politicians. Are any of them planning to return to the voters with a new referendum to ask whether we want to pay farmers not to develop their land, but then take our money and develop the land anyway? I doubt it.
So thank Judge Whelan and the Appeals Court that has already ruled against the theft of money from Suffolk County’s Drinking Water Protection Program by discredited former County Executive Steve Levy. Thank Judge Whelan for protecting citizens’ rights and our pocketbook. And the next time you see a so-called “farmer” crying because we won’t pay him to develop his land, remember he’s probably not growing food, anyway.
The author is executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an environmental education and advocacy organization.