North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine hopes that another large parcel of undeveloped land in Riverhead Town will be preserved as open space, but some of his fellow lawmakers are wondering if the county should proceed with the $8.9 million deal as it struggles with an unprecedented budget deficit.
Mr. Romaine (R-Center Moriches) told the News-Review in an interview this week that he has to reintroduce his bill to purchase the Long Island Beagle Club’s 150-acre property, located on the west side of Edwards Avenue, because he failed to get it approved by the end of 2011.
Although the Legislature approved the planning steps for the land acquisition in July, county lawmakers ultimately rejected the move by voting 12-5-1 to table Mr. Romaine’s bill during the Legislature’s regular meeting on Dec. 20 in Hauppauge. Mr. Romaine was joined by minority leader John Kennedy (R-Nesconset), Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) and Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) in voting against tabling the bill. Former 2nd District Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher was not present for the vote.
Although the nearly $59,000-per-acre deal would be paid for through the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program, which is funded by a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax, many county lawmakers said they opposed moving forward with the acquisition due to the current economic climate.
Mr. Romaine has argued that the fund can’t be used to balance the county’s budget because it’s specifically designated for water quality improvement purposes, namely open space preservation. The program, created in 1987 to safeguard drinking water by purchasing land and preventing development, can only be altered or repealed through the adoption of a Charter law that’s subject to a mandatory, countywide voter referendum.
“We have a pot of money that’s existed for a special purpose that’s been designated, not once but eight times by the voters and that purpose is to acquire open spaces,” Mr. Romaine said.
But Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay said during the December meeting that he believes the county doesn’t have to spend the money just because “the pot of money is there.”
“I’m seriously considering putting before this body a referendum — before the voters — because of the very tough fiscal condition of suspending the land acquisition program and using it to keep our county afloat,” Mr. Lindsay said at the meeting.
Another concern he had was Riverhead Town’s decision to forgo partnering with the county on the deal.
“If we had partner, I might have been more amenable,” he said.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter has said the town depleted its Community Preservation Fund last year when it partnered with the county to purchase over 300 acres at the North Fork Preserve in Northville for nearly $18.3 million.
“Riverhead spent all of its money — bonded all of its money out — has nothing left [and] has done everything it possibly could do to acquire farmland and open space,” Mr. Romaine said during the December meeting. “They are out of money, otherwise they would be partnering with us.”
Now that Mr. Romaine has reintroduced the bill, it has to be approved by the county’s environment, planning and agriculture committee before the Legislature can vote on it again.
That committee is scheduled to meet Jan. 30.
“I’m going to try again,” Mr. Romaine said. “If it gets tabled again, then I’ll work to do whatever I can to keep this acquisition alive.”
The Long Island Beagle Club, founded in 1932, used to train beagles on the property for hunting. In 2006, a developer was under contract to buy the land and create 73 clustered residential lots on the property. That proposal later fell through and the county has since taken steps toward acquiring the site.
If the acquisition deal is approved, the land will be used for passive recreation, such as hiking, and will be managed by the County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation. And one of the buildings on the property would be turned into an environmental education center, Mr. Romaine said.