BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Pumpkin pickers in a field at Harbes Family Farm on Sound Avenue in Mattituck.
After a farmland preservation bill that sounded the alarm of some environmental groups was pulled earlier this summer, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski believes he has the support for an altered version to help sustain the county’s depleted drinking water protection purse.
An original draft of the bill called for splitting the spending of drinking water protection funds 50-50 between farmland and open space, as the county’s land preservation purchases currently don’t distinguish between the buying of one or the other.
Farmland, Mr. Krupski (D-Cutchogue) stated in a News-Review opinion piece over the summer, is “critically important and food production must not be trivialized as so few things are produced in this country.”
At the time, he said, 95 percent of the county’s land preservation dollars spent through the Drinking Water Protection Fund -— a 0.25 percent sales tax that Suffolk County voters approved in 1987 to tax themselves — went toward open space preservation as opposed to farmland.
But environmentalists argued that pursuant to the original 1987 referendum, the proposed changes were out of line since voters OKd the original program firsthand, and amending it would require another vote.
Mr. Krupski’s amended bill — which was tabled at last week’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee meeting -— makes no mention of setting aside a certain percentage of land purchases for open space or farmland. It does, however, set a certain threshold that parcels must meet in order to be appraised by the county, a step necessary before legislators vote on buying them up.
“If [the land] doesn’t rate to a certain level, we shouldn’t even spend the money appraising it because it’s never going to get bought,” said Mr. Krupski, who also is a farmer. He added that the average appraisal — many of which the county contracts out — costs between $2,000 and $3,000. And those that aren’t contracted out, “jam up the whole system.”
Attention to Suffolk’s land purchases through the Drinking Water Protection Fund have come to a fore in the past year after the county bonded out against future revenues and subsequently used nearly all of the funding. While land was able to be purchased for historically low dollar values, Suffolk County, Southampton and Riverhead Towns were just a few municipalities that borrowed to buy now, rather than later.
Southold — where Mr. Krupski previously served as Town Councilman before running for legislator earlier this year — decided to forego such a program because “once you’ve used it up, you have no flexibility,” he said.
As of Oct. 7, 26 parcels were in contract, had accepted offers or were in negotiation, totaling $19.9 million in land preservation commitments using drinking water protection funding. Available for future negotiation was a balance of $365,010 — though EPA Chair Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) noted in an interview that $3.7 million in revenue from 2012 should be coming in before the end of the year.
Mr. Krupski believes he has support for the new bill and interviews with members of the EPA committee confirm it at least has the support to get out of committee. Legislators Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) and DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) all support the current measure.
“Obviously, it’s significantly different from the original bill, and those changes were appropriate given the historical interest in preserving the development rights of farmland in the past,” Mr. Gregory said.
Though Ms. Hahn said the proposed thresholds favor farmland more than open space — which are measured on two difference scales.
While Mr. Krupski disagreed, since the bill was tabled at last week’s committee meeting it remains to be seen what, if any, changes, remain to be made.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and one environmentalist who protested the original bill, said that while the new incarnation isn’t worth making a fuss over, he questions what it will do to help the county’s ability to purchase much more land.
“The amendments make it less offensive,” he said. “But we don’t see any need for the legislation. The county is cautiously buying open space and farmland, as it always has, applying the criteria environmentalists and farmers agreed upon.
“At the moment, he seems to want to improve the mechanisms for acquiring land — or protecting land we don’t have money to buy. Let’s work on funding those mechanisms.”
Mr. Krupski and Ms. Hahn both said discussions are being held to generate future revenue for open space purchases, though both were hesitant to release any details until proposals are finalized.
“Obviously, we need to go in a different direction,” Mr. Krupski said.