03/17/14 12:00pm
03/17/2014 12:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

Saying a lawsuit against the Suffolk County isn’t quite enough, environmentalists have taken to parking lots from Southold to Huntington to get a referendum on this fall’s ballot to halt a county effort to use $33 million in reserved Drinking Water Protection funds.

Dollars are raised for the Drinking Water Protection Fund through a 1/4 percent sales tax, and several dedicated programs exist within the fund. One of those, the sewer stabilization fund is meant to offset large spikes in sewer rates for residents, and the last fall the county decided to budget $32.8 million from that fund to help balance the 2014 spending plan.

While the Pine Barrens Society of Long Island, along with the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum, filed suit last week against the decision, Group for the East End has joined the Pine Barrens Society in gathering 10,000 signatures before the end of April. The hope is to get a measure to overturn the decision to use the funds this year.

“We’ve been arguing against it pretty vociferously,” said Bob DeLuca, president of GFEE. “But you hit that point when you realize nobody’s listening.”

Suffolk voters last agreed to renew the tax in 2007 — approving a ballot measure to maintain the tax through 2030.

The PBS sued Suffolk after it decided in 2011 to use close to $20 million to balance its budget previously. That litigation is still making its way through the justice system, though is expected to be heard later this year.

In order to qualify to get on the ballot, according to PBS president Dick Amper, the groups have to gather 2.5 percent of the population in each town who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

That equates to about 10,500 signatures, or a town-by-town breakdown as follows:

  • Shelter Island: 39
  • Southold: 237
  • Riverhead: 268
  • East Hampton: 205
  • Southampton: 475
  • Brookhaven: 3,137
  • Smithtown: 974
  • Huntington: 1,623
  • Islip: 1,917
  • Babylon: 1,623

Mr. Amper said on Monday morning that he’s been “amazed at the number of people who know about” the issue as PBS and GFEE petitioners have approached citizens in public places such as parking lots at supermarkets or post offices.

County Executive Steve Bellone’s original budget last year had not called for dipping into the sewer stabilization fund at all, but rather closing the budget gap in the $2.7 billion budget through borrowing from the New York State Dormitory Authority, a path that would have required legislation approved at the state level. A report from the County’s Budget Review Office identified that plan as a risk because of the necessary legislation.

Justin Meyers, communications director for Mr. Bellone, said last week that the county exec plans on replenishing the fund.

“The fact of the matter is that there are two overarching concerns,” he said. “First, if the money is being taken and used for something other than drinking water, it must be repaid. The county executive completely supports that.”

He added that also, the county “needs to engage the public and voters on the issue if it moves forward.”

Mr. Meyers added that once the county decides to spend the money from the sewer stabilization fund, the county legislature would have to pass a measure approving the spending. Within the language of that approval would be a repayment structure outlining when the county would pay the fund back.

Mr. Amper said a ballot referendum would be the only way to ensure that the funds are paid back, noting that a similar use of Drinking Water Protection Program money in 2011 did not require county legislation.

“We want to guarantee” that the money is paid back, he said. “And we’re going to do that through courts, or the court of public opinion.”

The plan laid out by the county last fall intends to start paying back into the sewer stabilization fund in 2017, though the county would still have to formally adopt a repayment schedule. Last fall, the balance in the sewer stabilization fund hovered around $140 million, leaving over $100 million left, should the $33 million be allocated this year.

However Mr. DeLuca noted that part of the Drinking Water Protection Fund already reserves a portion of revenues raised for balancing the budget. According to the county charter, about 32 percent of the proceeds raised by the tax go toward reducing county property taxes.

“You got money for the purpose of reducing taxes,” Mr. DeLuca said. “Stay away from the other part.”

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

03/10/14 8:50am
03/10/2014 8:50 AM
Environmentalists say Suffolk County's 2014 budget illegally used nearly $33 million in dedicated funds. Pictured: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson file photo.)

Environmentalists say Suffolk County’s 2014 budget illegally used nearly $33 million in dedicated funds. Pictured: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson file photo.)

After protesting the budget Suffolk County leaders approved last fall, environmental groups have now sued the county over its use of nearly $33 million in funds that were raised through the Drinking Water Protection Program, a self-imposed tax that Suffolk residents have voted to levy upon themselves several times since the late 1980s.

Saying that the funds comprise one of several dedicated revenue streams created by the sales tax — which will be in effect until 2030 — critics claim the choice to use it to close a budget gap violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves.

“What Suffolk politicians did was not just illegal, it was a violation of the public trust,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which brought the suit together with the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum. “Citizens and taxpayers voted to give government more than $1.5 billion to protect water with the assurance that the funds could not be used for any other purpose without another vote by the people.”

The Drinking Water Protection Fund is filled through a sales tax of one-quarter of one percent. Within that revenue stream are several specific uses, such as open space purchases and a fund dedicated to stabilizing sewer rates for residents. The 2014 budget used $32.8 million from the county’s sewer stabilization fund.

The lawsuit demands that the county return the money to the sewer stabilization fund, along with interest.

Justin Meyers, communications director for Mr. Bellone, said on Monday afternoon that the county exec had met with Mr. Amper and others who had brought the suit, describing the meeting as friendly.

“The fact of the matter is that there are two overarching concerns,” he said. “First, if the money is being taken and used for something other than drinking water, it must be repaid. The county executive completely supports that.”

He added that also, the county “needs to engage the public and voters on the issue if it moves forward.”

Mr. Meyers added that once the county decides to spend the money from the sewer stabilization fund, the county legislature would have to pass a measure approving the spending. Within the language of that approval would be a repayment structure outlining when the county would pay the fund back.

“Our argument has been that money is in this account, just sitting there,” he said. “So this is a way to save taxpayers money, instead of bonding and borrowing.”

Suffolk voters last agreed to renew the tax in 2007 — approving a ballot measure to maintain the tax through 2030. The recent plan laid out by the county intends to start paying back into the sewer stabilization fund in 2017. Last fall, the balance hovered around $140 million, leaving over $100 million left in the sewer stabilization fund.

The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday, and names Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County Legislature and the County of Suffolk all as defendants.

Three legislators voted against the budget last fall: Legislator Tom Barraga (R-East Islip), Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) and Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). Mr. Bellone’s original budget had not called for dipping into the sewer stabilization fund at all, but rather closing the budget gap in the $2.7 billion budget through borrowing from the New York State Dormitory Authority, a path that would have required legislation approved at the state level. A report from the County’s Budget Review Office identified that plan as a risk because of the necessary legislation.

The Pine Barrens Society also took Suffolk to court over its decision to use about $20 million from the same fund in 2011, under the direction of County Exec Steve Levy. That case is expected to be heard later this year.

An opinion of the county attorney’s office issued last fall defended the use of the funds.

Provided by a spokesperson for Mr. Bellone, the county pointed to case law — considered analogous with Suffolk County — that held that “The New York Court of Appeals has endorsed the statement that ‘laws proposed and enacted by the people under an initiative provision are subject to the same constitutional, statutory, and charter limitations as those passed by the legislature and are entitled to no greater sanctity or dignity.’”

11/19/13 9:00am
11/19/2013 9:00 AM
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has signed the 2014 budget.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Steve Bellone has signed the 2014 county budget.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has signed a 2014 budget previously amended by county legislators earlier this month, though the amended plan has environmental groups preparing to sue over how the county is balancing its books.

Signed on Monday, the $2.7 billion spending plan – which calls for no tax increase in the county’s general fund – calls for using nearly $33 million from the county’s sewer stabilization fund, a reserve account created when Suffolk County taxpayers approved the Drinking Water Protection Program via referendum in 1987.

The fund comprises one of several dedicated revenue streams created by the sales tax — another being open space preservation, for example — which is one-quarter of one percent, and critics say the choice to use it to close a budget gap violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves.

“The public has repeatedly voted to tax themselves – and they are paying 2.5 times the national average as it is – to protect their drinking water with the explicit assurance that the writing can’t be altered for any other purpose,” said Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper. ”There’s no justification for violating this solemn contract with the public.”

Suffolk voters last agreed to renew the tax in 2007 — approving a ballot measure to maintain the tax through 2030. The recent plan laid out by the county intends to start paying back into the sewer stabilization fund – which is used to offset spikes in sewer rates – in 2017.

The balance currently hovers around $140 million, leaving over $100 million left in the sewer stabilization fund.

Mr. Bellone, in the budget he presented to the Legislature, had suggested closing the budget gap through borrowing from the New York State Dormitory Authority, a path that would have required legislation approved at the state level. A report from the County’s Budget Review Office identified that plan as a risk because of the necessary legislation.

Legislator Tom Barraga (R-East Islip), who spent over 20 years in Albany as an assemblyman, voted along with legislators Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) and Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) against the county Legislature’s budget – pointing to past bailouts in New York City and Nassau County as evidence the legislation would not be much of a risk at all.

Supporters of the decision to use the funds said the plan will save over $40 million in interest payments from what they would have paid if they borrowed from the Dormitory Authority.

“It’s a huge savings,” said North Fork Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who added that he wasn’t exactly sure how the use of the funds was legal.

He said that’s “a legal issue for the lawyers to decide.”

An opinion of the county attorney’s office, provided by a spokesperson for Mr. Bellone, pointed to case law — considered analogous with Suffolk County — that held that “The New York Court of Appeals has endorsed the statement that ‘laws proposed and enacted by the people under an initiative provision are subject to the same constitutional, statutory, and charter limitations as those passed by the legislature and are entitled to no greater sanctity or dignity.’”

While the county and some environmental groups remain in court over similar action taken in 2011, Bob DeLuca, executive director of Group for the East End — which did not take legal action then — said his organization’s members are deciding for themselves whether or not to sue.

Mr. DeLuca questioned whether or not the sewer fund would ever be replenished as promised.

“Anybody can promise anything in order to get a short-term gain,” Mr. DeLuca said. “But in 2017, to go back to the Legislature and say, ‘You promised to put the money back’ — there will be different people in place and different priorities. Maybe there will be another economic downturn.”

Aside from the county’s decision to use reserves from the sewer stabilization fund, an attempt to bring back about $120,000 more in revenue to the East End, generated through the county’s hotel/motel tax, stalled in the Legislature’s economic development and energy committee.

In addition, the Legislature rejected measures to adjust its police revenue sharing program — a move that would have brought over $500,000 to Riverhead, more than $400,000 to Southold and over $50,000 to Shelter Island — as well as an attempt to fund the Vocational Education and Extension Board, part of the county fire academy for a full year, as opposed to six months.

Pointing to the police revenue sharing defeat, the decision not to fund VEEB, and the loss of additional hotel/motel revenue — as well as use of the sewer stabilization funds — Mr. Schneiderman voted against the budget for the first time in 10 years.

“I don’t feel this year’s budget was great for the East End,” said Mr. Schneiderman, who was just re-elected to a sixth and final two-year term in office under term limit laws.

Mr. Krupski, meanwhile, said that some hotel/motel funds were brought back to the East End during the budget working group meetings, a closed-door process that has earned criticism on its own.

He also pointed to success “keeping revenue projections in a more realistic place,” and added that police revenue sharing is something that needs to be addressed on a percentage basis, rather than the hard numbers currently negotiated.

While he said the budget’s end product might not be exactly what East End voters would want, he said, “I did have some constructive input on it, but everything doesn’t always go my way or my district’s way. Every dollar was allocated evenly.”

As far as going to court over the use of sewer funds, Mr. Amper said the Pine Barrens Society’s board of directors has already approved litigating the topic. Group for the East End is still considering, while a request for comment from the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, another major environmental group in the region, was not immediately returned.

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

08/02/13 10:00am
08/02/2013 10:00 AM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A reproduction of a painting of a forest fire in the Long Island Pine Barrens is featured in an exhibit detailing the history of the island's oldest forests.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A reproduction of a painting of a forest fire in the Long Island Pine Barrens is featured in an exhibit detailing the history of the island’s oldest forests.

On the Fourth of July in 1993, the “War of the Woods” was coming to a head, and Long Island Pine Barrens Society co-founder John Turner was on the front lines.

Mr. Turner sat upstairs in the chambers of the New York State Senate and Assembly in Albany, tracking the progress of a landmark bill that would protect the Long Island Central Pine Barrens.

On that day, in the closing moments of the year’s legislative session, the act passed unanimously in both houses.

“That was a euphoric moment,” Mr. Turner said.

Senator Ken LaValle, a sponsor of the legislation, recalled seeing environmental activists and developers celebrate as the act was approved.

“People who were combatants in the ‘War of the Woods’ were literally embracing one another, jumping up and down like little kids,” he said.

Pine Barrens wild fire

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Life flourishing in charred forest in Manorville in April, a year the Wildfire of 2012 burned over 1,000 acres of pine barrens.

On July 14, 1993, the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act was signed into law by Gov. Mario Cuomo, creating one of the largest comprehensive land management plans in state history.

Now, more than 20 years later, those who helped drum up support for the legislation say the act — and the cooperation of environmentalists, state politicians and land developers — helped to save more than 100,000 acres of Long Island’s last remaining wilderness and change the future of Long Island.

“It was as though Long Islanders just got up one day and said, ‘The pavement stops here.’ ” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society. “If it hadn’t been for litigation and the Pine Barrens Act, [development] would have turned the Pine Barrens into a piece of swiss cheese.”

The Pine Barrens — named by Native Americans and early colonists for the abundance of pine trees and the infertility of its porous, sandy soil — were born after the last glaciers retreated from Long Island, roughly 12,000 years ago. The Pine Barrens sit atop Long Island’s designated sole source aquifer, recharging a section of its drinking water supply.

At one time, the Pine Barrens covered a quarter of Long Island, or about 250,000 acres. But much of the forest was cut down during the late 19th century to be used as cordwood for a growing New York City. In the 1970s, about 125,000 acres remained untouched. By the 1980s, however, nearly 5,000 acres of forest were being lost to development each year.

Preservation efforts began in earnest with the Pine Barrens Society, founded in 1977 by John Cryan, Robert McGrath and Mr. Turner.

“We would give talks to anybody who would listen,” Mr. Turner said. “It was just a tireless campaign by the society to get the word out.”

The group pushed back against pressure to develop the land and filed a lawsuit in 1989 against Suffolk County and the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton to stop development.

Ken LaValle

Ken LaValle

The society ultimately lost the case in the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, which said a law would need to be adopted to protect the land. The group appealed to local politicians to take up the cause and Mr. LaValle and then-assemblyman Tom DiNapoli became involved, meeting one night at an Italian restaurant to discuss how to engineer support for legislation to protect the forest.

“He and I sat down over a spaghetti dinner as two Italian boys and we talked about our strategy,” Mr. LaValle said.

Their solution was simple: Get everyone — environmentalists and developers alike — together at the same table.

“We began to talk about this word by word, line by line, even where we were putting commas and periods,” Mr. LaValle said. “The stakeholders actually sat around the table and wrote [the law].”

Ultimately they reached a “grand bargain” to keep a core area of about 53,000 acres safe from development while opening the remaining 45,000 acres to “compatible growth” that would be subject to environmental safeguards.

The act sailed through the state Legislature, but faced another test: ratification by the three affected towns, any of which could have vetoed the plan.

“We weren’t out of the woods yet,” Mr. Turner said. “If the plan in 1995 had not been adopted this whole thing would have fallen apart.”

Though Brookhaven and Southampton towns quickly came on board, the Town of Riverhead resisted, citing concerns over development at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

“The Town of Riverhead was being, how we say, difficult,” Mr. Turner said. “But ultimately things worked out.”

Since then, the Pine Barrens Protection Act and the subsequent ratification of land acquisitions across the region have served as a model for policy scholars.

“We’ve gotten offers to lecture at law schools across the country,” Mr. LaValle said.

On the anniversary of the act’s passage last month, co-sponsor Mr. DiNapoli — now the state comptroller — said his legislative legacy was defined by the Pine Barrens Protection Act.

“Of all the issues I’ve been involved with, the Pine Barrens really stands out as the one I’m most proud of,” he said in a video interview the Pine Barrens Society created for this year’s anniversary. “We achieved something for the environment and for economic development and for public health.”

Advocates say much of the credit for the act’s success belongs to Long Island residents who supported the legislation.

“The people of Long Island did a remarkable thing in the name of water preservation and habitat protection,” Mr. Amper said.

But politicians and activists alike say more can still be done to protect the Pine Barrens and its water supply.

The Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission was formed through the act, and is tasked with stewardship of the land regulated by the act. It’s made up of representatives from the state, local towns and environmental organizations.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter is one of its members.

“It’s been a wonderful success, but I think it’s imperative that the supervisors keep taking their roles as commission members seriously,” he said, adding that in recent years the commission has included more direct participation from stakeholders.

“We have to be vigilant in what our original mission is, which is protecting the Pine Barrens, but not … adding on another layer of government bureaucracy,” Mr. Walter said. “It’s a difficult balance but I think the Pine Barrens Commission has done a good job of keeping that balance.”

Mr. Turner said politicians and the commission will both have to tackle managing the wildlife and forest to keep the Pine Barrens safe from invasive species and out-of-control wildfires, one of which burned more than 1,000 acres of the Pine Barrens in April 2012.

“Those lands are a gift to all Long Islanders,” he said.

psquire@timesreview.com

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Pine Barrens Protection Act, an exhibit has been installed at the Suffolk County Center in Riverside on the history of the Pine Barrens.

It will be on display in the lobby of the Evans K. Griffing building through Sept. 30. 

07/11/13 8:00am
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.