02/12/14 12:33pm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | County Legislator Kara Hahn introduced a bill aimed at examining the benefits of using beet-based brines, like the one above manufactured by East End Organics.

With snowfall totals soaring this winter season — and another storm on the way — area highway crews have been coating the roads with mixtures of salt and sand, but those mixtures are only so effective once temperatures dip below 20 degrees, according to town highway superintendents.  (more…)

01/17/14 12:00pm
01/17/2014 12:00 PM
SC_Jail_BE_R.jpg

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside.

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office has formed the county’s first citizens advisory board for law enforcement, and has named a Riverhead pastor as a member of the board’s initial six-member team.

The Sheriff’s Office Citizens Advisory Board will create and run programs designed to “resolve conflict, concerns and issues regarding the sheriff’s office and the community it serves,” according to a Thursday press release.

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said the initiative — which comes amid increased media scrutiny over law enforcement agencies in Nassau and Suffolk counties — is an important first step in “preserving public trust in county law enforcement.”

Calls for a police department advisory board in Nassau and Suffolk have grown in recent years, with a recent Newsday investigation pointing to the fact that no civilian review organizations — such as NYC’s Civilian Complaint Review Board — exist in the two counties to field complaints against police.

An accompanying Newsday editorial called for the establishment of such boards.

“Residents need a forum to air grievances about police treatment,” the editorial reads. “These are not cure-alls, but they often have helped to create a culture of accountability to the public.”

A member of the new board will be the Rev. Charles Coverdale, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Riverhead.

Rev. Coverdale has “made major contributions to his local community,” the sheriff’s press release reads, noting his ministry to inmates inside the county’s correctional facilities.

Rev. Coverdale also serves on Harvard Divinity School Center’s Leadership Council in Boston, Mass., according to the release. He will be joining a diverse board that features a psychotherapist, a priest, a retired police officer, an attorney, and a Long Island civic leader.

The board will write up annual reviews of complaints and concerns from civilians, promote community input through programs, review and comment on the office’s law enforcement activities, and set up meetings in various towns throughout the year to encourage residents to get involved, according to the sheriff’s statement.

The Sheriff’s Office Citizens Advisory Board will hold its first meeting in early February.

psquire@timesreview.com

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