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

03/12/14 6:00am
03/12/2014 6:00 AM
Steve Bellone delivering his State of the County speech on March 5. (courtesy)

Steve Bellone delivering his State of the County speech on March 5. (Credit: Courtesy)

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivered his annual State of the County address last W in the Legislature’s meeting room in Hauppauge.

Below is a transcript of the address in its entirety, as provided by Mr .Bellone’s office.

State of County

12/24/13 4:00pm
12/24/2013 4:00 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Sunday bus service will now be offered year-round starting Jan. 5, Suffolk officials announced this week.

Sunday bus service along the East End will be extended throughout the year starting Jan. 5, Suffolk County officials announced this week.

The S92 line, which runs from Orient Point to East Hampton, and the 10C that connects East Hampton to Montauk, will now offer year-round Sunday transportation services, County Executive Steve Bellone said Monday in a press release.

In addition to the two East End routes, which currently operate between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, six other county routes will also be extended, officials said.

“Providing additional transportation opportunities for Suffolk County will give residents who are in need of transportation on Sundays the opportunity to shop, attend church services, and get to work without having to rely on family or friends or just not having the opportunity to travel on Sundays,” Mr. Bellone said. “Investments in our infrastructure serve as economic development initiatives which will help to grow our economy and provide for a sustainable economic future.”

For more information visit the Suffolk County Transit Service’s website.

cmurray@timesreview.com

12/02/13 4:50pm
12/02/2013 4:50 PM
Downtown Riverhead, East Main Street, Riverhead IDA

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | The former Woolworth building on East Main Street has been largely empty since the old five-and-dime chain closed in 1997.

The revitalization of the former Woolworth building in downtown Riverhead will be receiving several grants to assist in the conversion of the building into a gym, stores and affordable apartments, officials said Monday.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, state Sen. Ken LaValle, North Fork county legislator Al Krupski and Riverhead Town officials are scheduled to announce the grant at a 12:30 p.m. press conference Tuesday at the site.

“The county will provide infrastructure funding to redevelop the building,” a statement from Mr. Bellone stated Monday. The redevelopment of the building, which has been vacant since 1997, “is expected to create about 125 construction jobs and 100 retail employment opportunities.”

A group called Woolworth Revitalization LLC, headed by Michael Butler of Sag Harbor, purchased the building earlier this year and received town approvals to build a gym on the ground floor, with smaller storefronts on Main Street and 19-apartments on the upper floor of the building.

It was unclear what grants were to be announced on Tuesday.

In September, the county announced that $800,000 would be allocated toward the project, including $250,000 from the county to offset certain land and infrastructure costs. In addition, the county also said in September that 11 of the affordable units would be funded with Federal HOME Investment Partnership program funds in the amount of $550,000, and that project will receive $75,000 from the Town through the NY Main Street Program for revitalization.

Ultimate on Main, a gym that used to be located on Route 58, and Goldberg’s Famous Bagels, are already on board as tenants in the project, and the Long Island Housing Partnership is working with the developer on the affordable rentals.

11/27/13 12:00pm
11/27/2013 12:00 PM
ROBERT O'ROURK FILE PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

ROBERT O’ROURK FILE PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Suffolk County could find itself being called to court as early as this week, as environmental groups consider if and when to take legal action after the county officially adopted its 2014 budget, which some say illegally pilfers from funds reserved in the county’s Drinking Water Protection accounts.

County Executive Steve Bellone signed a $2.7 billion spending plan last Monday, after the Legislature decided to use nearly $33 million from the county’s sewer stabilization fund, a reserve account created when Suffolk County taxpayers first 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.

While representatives of some environmental groups said last week they were considering taking legal action, the only one that decidedly said it will litigate – the Long Island Pine Barrens Society – could do so later this week.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said he would be meeting with the organization’s legal team Wednesday, Nov. 27, to determine which of the county’s moves would trigger the legal action.

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.

Bill Toedter, president of the North Fork Environmental Council, said Monday that his organization’s board of directors will vote at its December on whether to join the litigation, and would be more likely to join with other groups than file suit on its own.

“Because of the wording on the referendum … voters never would have approved additional quarter-percent sales tax if they felt that legislators, on a whim, could change it,” Mr. Toedter said.

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.’”

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

10/25/13 11:00am
10/25/2013 11:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed changes to the county's farmland preservation bill that would include more agritourism uses on preserved parcels. Pictured is Reeves Farm on Main Road in Aquebogue.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed changes to the county’s farmland preservation bill that would include more agritourism uses on preserved parcels. Pictured is Reeves Farm on Main Road in Aquebogue.

Amendments to the county code could allow more activities on preserved farmland, as elected officials say opening up uses on the land would permit farming operations to thrive long-term in the face of constantly creeping suburban sprawl.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed changes to the county’s Farmland Preservation Law that would permit uses such as U-pick operations, larger farm stands and processing facilities that create locally crafted goods such as wine or potato chips.

“Suffolk County has a great agricultural heritage,” said Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue). “It’s part of our culture and, just as importantly, it’s a huge part of our economy.”

Mr. Krupski is a farmer himself, one of hundreds in the county who have propelled Suffolk to lead the state in terms of agricultural sales volume. A U.S. Department of Agriculture census completed in 2007 showed the county tallied over $240 million agricultural sales that year, an increase of $40 million – or 20 percent – from five years earlier.

But legislators have still been seeking ways to help the industry grow over the long haul. The process started with implementation of the county’s farmland development program nearly 40 years ago – in addition to town-run Community Preservation Fund programs that have been active since the late 1990s.

The next step is maintaining the farming industry itself, Mr. Bellone said.

“These updates to the county’s Farmland Development Rights program will ensure that current and future generations of Suffolk County farmers will have the economic tools necessary to succeed on Long Island,” Mr. Bellone (D-Babylon) wrote in a statement.

The legislation itself would apply to land purchased in part or in whole by Suffolk County for the purpose of farmland development. According to numbers provided by Southold Town, that could affect 83 parcels comprising over 1,700 acres. In Riverhead, according to town figures, more than 1,750 acres on 54 parcels have been purchased in conjunction with the county since 1998 alone. However, whether or not specific parcels would be able to take advantage of the new allowances, depend on easements on each specific purchase, and local zoning would still apply to any county regulations.

The legislation would double the allowable size of farm stands on preserved land from 500 square feet to 1,000. Processing facilities would be permitted on site, also limited 1,000 square feet in area when combined with the size of a farm stand. Up to 49 percent of goods processed on site could come from other farms on Long Island.

Agritourism regulations would be eased on preserved farmland as well, allowing U-pick facilities, crop mazes, hayrides and educational tours.

Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca said that while supporting farmers who operate on preserved land should indeed be on the county’s priority list after investing in the land, doing so should be done carefully.

“The primary purpose of the underlying investment was for agricultural production, so it’s important that farming not drift too far into entertainment,” Mr. DeLuca said.

“But obviously the underpinning of the financial investment is to protect farmland,” he said. “They don’t want to undercut the core of their investment, which is agricultural land for agricultural production. That requires some delicate balancing and regular scrutiny.”

After one public hearing about the proposed changes earlier this month in Riverside, two more are scheduled for November: on Nov. 8 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 19 at 9:30 a.m. Both meetings will be held at the W.H. Rogers Legislature Building in Hauppauge.