01/16/14 1:30pm
01/16/2014 1:30 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Kujawski's farm land on Herricks Lane in Jameport.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Kujawski’s farm land on Herricks Lane in Jameport.

It’s good to see county government update its 1996 Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan with a more recent and comprehensive study. It’s often said that having only two representatives in an 18-member legislative body puts the five East End towns at a political disadvantage. And while there’s plenty of truth to that, an in-depth update to hone in on concerns and legislative priorities in the area’s most vital industry should not go overlooked.

Related: Plans for the future of Suffolk farms in the works

With nearly two-thirds of surveyed farmers in the county engaging in some form of agritourism — a number that’s not likely to drop anytime soon — perhaps the most obvious area of study would be how local governments can plan for growth of that aspect of the industry while maintaining the quality of life that characterizes the area.

It’s imperative that farmers be able to earn a living moving forward, though the North Fork consists of a diverse and well-rounded community that extends beyond those tilling the fields. While the final product remains to be seen, it’s a positive sign that the county is exploring and encouraging the growth of Suffolk’s farm industry. And looking ahead. Updating the county’s comprehensive approach to agriculture and farmland protection bodes well for the future.

01/16/14 8:02am
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Aquebogue farmer Donald McKay cutting a field of hay on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO |  Aquebogue farmer Donald McKay cutting a field of hay on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

A study released by Suffolk County in the mid-1990s declared that the availability of farmland in Suffolk would continue declining in the coming years, following the suburban sprawl that had begun in the mid-20th century.

The deer population at the time was described as “burgeoning.”

The more some things change, the more they stay the same: Farm owners at the time cited high property taxes and labor costs as threats to their business models. And, as was the case last year, in 1996 Suffolk led the state in market value of agricultural products sold.

Seventeen years later, Suffolk is updating the 1996 Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan in an effort to look at the future of the North Fork’s most visible industry, one that countywide had an estimated $275 million in sales in 2013. The update to the 1996 study, officials say, will help plant the seeds for future growth while strengthening the county’s economy as a whole.

“With over 500 farms in the county, everybody would concur that this is an industry that needs to be protected,” said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “Not so much to preserve it, but to protect it.”

According to United States 2010 census estimates, only 0.3 percent of the county’s working population was employed in the agriculture, forestry, fishing/hunting and mining sectors. Nevertheless, the ripple effect of agriculture on the tourist industry and beyond had Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone calling for changes before the study has even been completed.

Partly as a result, late last year, Suffolk officials loosened regulations on farmland on which the county had purchased development rights, allowing activities previously banned on those parcels: U-pick operations, corn mazes, larger farm stands and processing facilities up to a certain size.

But the county still has more to do, and updating the plan remains vital to the goal of sustaining and growing the industry, officials say. Paid for with $50,000 from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the entire study must be completed by August, said county farmlands administrator August Ruckdeschel.

Mr. Ruckdeschel noted that the 1996 study didn’t even mention aquaculture. “That, to me, is very problematic,” he said.

Mr. Gergela said the 1996 study was “pretty boiler plate stuff,” mostly noting the history and status of various challenges facing the industry and offering little in the way of detailed public policy for sustaining farming over the long haul.

The study also predicted that only 10,000 acres of farmland would remain in the county if Suffolk continued to conserve land as it had been doing. In the 11 years following the study (the last available data was the 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census), with the assistance of publicly-funded conservation efforts, the availability of farmland has remained largely unchanged, dropping from 35,353 acres farmed in Suffolk in 1996 to 34,404 acres in 2007. That compares to over 123,000 acres of active farmland in 1950.

Earlier this month, Mr. Ruckdeschel presented to the Suffolk County Planning Commission the results of a survey that will be used as part of the study, and he’s expected to go over the results again during the two-day Long Island Agricultural Forum at Suffolk County Community College today and tomorrow. Over 140 farmers responded to the survey (89 from Riverhead and Southold), which covered topics ranging from the products they grow and the size of their farms to the challenges they face.

The survey showed that 62 of those farmers plan to increase the size of their farming operation within five years, while just 24 said they plan on scaling back.

Concerns facing farmers in Riverhead and Southold were nearly identical, the results showed: both ranked high production costs, the availability of farm labor and high fuel costs as their top three concerns. The 44 Riverhead farmers who responded also pointed to environmental regulations and property taxes as top concerns. In Southold, 45 farmers rated climate change, environmental regulations and prevalence of pests as other big concerns.

Aquebogue farmer Lyle Wells, who served on the Agricultural and Farmlands Protection Board at the time of the 1996 study, said that on the county level, one thing government could do to address his long-term concerns would be to increase its protection of farmland — namely by devoting a certain amount of dollars to preserving farmland.

“They could dedicate more funds to the preservation of farmland versus open space, [based] on the simple fact that farming is an economic driver,” Mr. Wells said. “If they had $100 million, at least dedicate $50 million to farmland and $50 million to open space. Don’t slant it one way or the other.”

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) pitched a similar proposal last year in the legislature, though it didn’t gain the body’s support. Since farmland and open space are financed by the same pool of dedicated funds, some legislators flatly said preserving farmland was unhelpful to their districts. Mr. Krupski hasn’t said for certain if he’ll take up the issue again.

In addition to the survey, the county has held focus groups with farmers and other stakeholders in the agricultural and environmental communities as part of updating the ag plan. And the county planning and economic development departments are working on updating an inventory of the 587 farms in the county.

One thing that stood out to Planning Commission chair David Colone was the median age of the farmers who responded to the survey: 55 years, or 15 years above the county’s median age as reported in the 2010 census. Mr. Colone said one thing he hopes to see in the final draft of the plan is a strategy to lure younger people to farming.

Planning Commission member Nicholas Planamento, representing Southold Town, echoed that sentiment, also noting that in order for the region as a whole to benefit from agriculture’s success, growth has to come in a way that allows the area’s charm to remain as well.

“While we welcome agritourism, people often forget that people live out here, and this is not just a tourist zone,” he said. He also pointed to last fall’s Taste North Fork — which offered free bus service between hamlets over one entire weekend to visit local businesses — as a possible model for future growth.

While that’s just one idea he sees benefitting both the agriculture community — from wineries to restaurants serving locally-sourced food — and the local economy at large, the plan due out later this year should offer more ideas for the future.

Such ideas are a start, he noted.

“Before you can learn to run, you walk,” Mr. Planamento said. “We’re way past crawling.”

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

12/30/13 11:30am
12/30/2013 11:30 AM
TIM GANNON PHOTO | A gazebo along the Peconic Riverfront went for a ride during Hurricane Sandy Monday.

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | A gazebo along the Peconic Riverfront went for a ride during Hurricane Sandy.

As part of an effort to remain eligible for federal emergency mitigation funding, the county is asking residents to fill out a survey which explores locals’ knowledge of natural disaster issues.

The Suffolk County Hazard Mitigation Planning Committee is offering the 21-question survey, the results of which will be used to “coordinate activities to reduce the risk of injury or property damage in the future.”

Funding available in part from offering the survey, according to Southold Town’s website, will be used for beach re-nourishment, elevating structures, and offering backup power for schools and critical facilities.

Complete the survey here.

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

12/23/13 5:00pm
12/23/2013 5:00 PM
SC_Jail_BE_R.jpg

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Suffolk County jail in Riverside.

Suffolk County has agreed to pay $2 million in a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after the regulatory agency alleged that the county violated federal laws, failing to maintain nearly 70 underground tanks, including seven tanks on county land from Wading River to Southold.

According to a federal complaint, the county failed to provide adequate maintenance and monitoring of at least 68 underground storage tanks at 35 facilities across the county. Locally, the locations include three tanks at the County Department of Public Works highway maintenance yard in Southold, two tanks at Indian Island Park on Riverside Drive, one at the Shoreham power plant on North Country Road in Wading River, and one tank at the Suffolk County Jail on Center Drive in Riverside.

The storage tanks contain gasoline or waste oil “in generally large quantities” that could cause serious environmental damage if allowed to leak, according to the federal complaint. However the violations do not pose any immediate threat to the drinking water of county residents, officials said.

The alleged insufficiencies are in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which oversees management of non-hazardous solid wastes.

Each of the facilities operates within the boundaries of the sole source aquifer, which supplies at least half of the drinking water consumed in the area, according to a release from U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch.

“Suffolk County’s residents are entitled to full protection of the laws and regulations designed to protect our water, our environment, and our citizens from risk of contamination from gasoline,” Ms. Lynch said.

The county has agreed to pay a $500,000 penalty to federal government, as well as fund a Supplemental Environmental Project in the amount of $1,500,000 which will be used “to acquire an interest in land, and to manage such land and any associated ecological resources, into perpetuity, to protect or enhance groundwater,” according to the settlement.

The county is also responsible for all costs in bringing facilities up to full compliance with federal requirements.

So far, Suffolk has spent about $2.9 million in measures to achieve compliance, including the replacement and upgrade of automated release detection systems, removal and closure of obsolete tanks, upgrade and renovation of fueling stations, adding inventory control equipment at fueling sites, conducting training and inspections, and also the cleanup and restoration of a fuel spill at one of Suffolk’s facilities.

The location of that facility was not immediately available.

The county is expected to spend an additional estimated $1.1 million to remain in compliance in the future, and is responsible for to submitting regular reports to the EPA demonstrating compliance, according to the release.

“Suffolk’s commitment to maintain compliance with those laws and to fund the acquisition of an interest in land that will be perpetually managed to protect and enhance groundwater provides a significant benefit to Suffolk’s residents,” Ms. Lynch said.

EPA administrator Judith A. Enck said, “as a result of this settlement, the health of people living in communities throughout Suffolk County will be better protected from the threat of petroleum contamination to ground water,”

The proposed settlement will be published in the Federal Register for a 30-day public comment period, and must be approved by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York before it takes effect.

cmiller@timesreview.com

12/18/13 4:00pm
12/18/2013 4:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

A measure by Legislator Al Krupski to amend how the county purchases farmland and open space failed to pass on Tuesday, even after the Cutchogue Democrat revised the proposed bill after it initially drew the ire of some environmentalists.

In June, Mr. Krupski proposed his original farmland preservation amendment, which suggested splitting the use of the county’s Drinking Water Protection Fund 50-50 between open space and farmland purchases. But dedicating a specific portion of the revenue stream to one use or the other proved too much to ask, and the legislator later altered his proposed amendment, pitching a watered-down version of the legislation in July.

Mr. Krupski’s amended proposal made no mention of setting aside a certain percentage of land purchases for open space or farmland. It did, however, set certain standards that parcels must meet in order to be appraised by the county — a required step before legislators vote to purchase land.

“I find it surprising that in any way, we could find it controversial that we would spend our money more wisely,” he said before the vote at Tuesday’s general meeting.

But the added benchmarks concerned at least 13 legislators, who voted to table the amendment in the final meeting of the year Tuesday, effectively killing it.

Attention to Suffolk’s land purchases through the Drinking Water Protection Fund came to the fore in the past year after the county bonded out against future revenues and subsequently used nearly all the funding. While land was at that time available for historically low prices, Suffolk County, Southampton and Riverhead towns were just a few of the municipalities that borrowed to buy now rather than later.

Legislator Lou D’Amaro (D-North Babylon) said before Tuesday’s floor vote that he didn’t believe the proposed appraisal rating system was designed to be considered a threshold for whether a particular parcel could ever be purchased.

Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport) said Mr. Krupski’s amendment would likely favor the first and second legislative districts — the North and South Forks — as they would codify the process of appraising land parcels, and most parcels available for open space and farmland preservation purchases are located out east.

“To set a rule that would cause me to put my constituents at a disadvantage permanently — I have a very difficult time doing that,” he said.

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chair of the county’s environment, planning and agriculture committee, said last week that those proposed thresholds, in effect, favor purchasing farmland over open space, as the standards were harder to meet for open space buys.

“It’s not treating them equally, and we have a preference for open space because this is drinking water protection money,” she said. “And a wooded parcel that’s open space is protecting drinking water more than preserving farmland would.”

While the Mr. Krupski’s proposed amendment wasn’t rejected, having been tabled Tuesday, it would have to be re-introduced next year in order to be considered once again. Mr. Krupski said he doesn’t intend to bring it back up immediately and will see how previously approved alterations in the land-buying process, which go into effect next year, work out.

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

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