Editorial: Right time to call timeout on preservation

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The 307-acre North Fork Preserve property was purchased by the town and county for $18.3 million last year.

Enough! That’s what freshman Legislator Kara Hahn essentially shouted from the rooftop of the Suffolk County Legislature at its Feb. 7 meeting when she introduced legislation calling for a 90-day moratorium on open space acquisitions.

With less and less money available (since November, the county is no longer able to bond for such purchases), tensions are running high in Hauppauge, and the future of the county’s drinking water protection program, which funds such land acquisitions, is in doubt. Lawmakers, such as North Fork representative Ed Romaine, are rightfully fearful that the purchases they’ve been lobbying so hard for may get scrapped at the eleventh hour.

Or worse, that the program gets scrapped altogether.

Just two months ago, presiding officer Bill Lindsay publicly stated that he was “seriously considering” asking the lawmakers to set a referendum on allowing the county to suspend the acquisition program — funded through a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax ­— and use the money to plug budget holes in the general fund. That set off a firestorm and county lawmakers have since continued to trade jabs with one another, and with environmentalists, over the program and specific proposed open space purchases. Amid this bickering, Ms. Hahn has stepped up to the plate. She didn’t swing for the fences; she called a timeout.

And that was the right call.

Piecemeal deals and vindictive maneuvering are no way to steer this hugely successful 25-year program into the next quarter-century.

And with available funds shrinking, now is the time to take a breath, reprioritize the list of potential land acquisitions and figure out the best way to determine which projects get funded and in which order, if at all. That’s what Ms. Hahn’s legislation calls for and, although it’s not a comprehensive vision of how to remake the system, it is a short-term tool for everyone to step back, take a breath and cool their tempers, lest we risk losing this highly valuable program — especially to us here in Riverhead where county land purchases have played a tremendous part in preserving our way of life — forever.