Sidney L. Mitchell

10/26/2011 10:47 AM |

Sidney L. Mitchell

Sidney L. Mitchell, who as a county commissioner helped pioneer the program that preserved broad stretches of farmland across Long Island’s Suffolk County, died early Sunday, Oct. 23, in Sarasota, Fla., after suffering from congestive heart failure. He was 88.

Born in Patchogue, N.Y., in 1923, Mr. Mitchell was raised largely in Bay Shore. As a young man, he enlisted in the U.S. Merchant Marine and survived the harrowing and dangerous World War 11 supply runs to Murmansk in the Soviet Union that claimed so many seamen. After that, he joined the U.S. Navy and served in the Pacific and occupied Japan.

Returning home after the war, Mr. Mitchell graduated from law school at New York University and worked for a time as a lawyer and small businessman before entering government as deputy town attorney for Islip and then deputy county attorney in Suffolk.

But it was as commissioner of land management from 1975 to 1984 that Mr. Mitchell made his most lasting contribution, helping carry out County Executive John V.N. Klein’s vision for a farmland preservation program. Under Mr. Mitchell, the first of Suffolk’s farmers were offered the opportunity to sell the development rights for their farms to the county. The program was designed to give farmers much needed cash and capital in exchange for the guarantee that their land would remain agricultural in perpetuity. It was novel and controversial in its time, particularly in the search for a fair value for the land. Today its results are visible in the farm fields that still give eastern Suffolk so much of its character.

Mr. Mitchell went on to become a Suffolk County district judge from 1984 through 1991, a window into all kinds of human foibles that often left him saying that he should write a memoir called “But Judge….”

“He had a first-rate mind and was great with people,” said state Senator Kenneth LaValle, who worked with Mr. Mitchell during the early days of Suffolk’s farm preservation efforts. “He really made the job look easy.”

Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said Mr. Mitchell’s efforts allowed farmers to buy land previously owned by speculators. With the county purchasing the development rights from the investors, growers, including Mr. Gergela and his family, could then acquire farmland at reasonable prices.

“That never would have happened without John Klein and Sidney Mitchell,” he said.

Mr. Mitchell retired to Sarasota, which reminded him of Long Island, in 1991. He was no longer the avid boater and fisherman of his youth but he loved photographing the waterways and sea birds.

He is survived by his wife, Audrey; his children, Alison and Andrew; and his grandson, Gregory.

This is a paid notice.