Editorial: Let’s keep the ‘bay’ in goals of Peconic Bay CPF

The Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund has never been just about protecting agriculture, farms and open space. At its heart, the program, which took effect in 1999, has always been about protecting a way of life the rest of Long Island lost long ago to intense — and ongoing — suburban sprawl that began after World War II. 

Through the program, purchasers of most properties in the county’s five East End towns pay a 2 percent tax, and that money goes principally toward purchasing and protecting area woodlands, fields and farms. Some of it can also be used to maintain properties and protect historic structures.

The CPF, as it’s known, has been hugely successful in ensuring that the region looks nothing like the rest of Long Island. It was overwhelmingly extended through 2030 by East End voters again in 2009. But there’s more work to be done to protect the character that sets the East End apart. While this has traditionally gone hand in hand with protecting farmland and open space, the waters that surround them have degraded over time, thereby not really preserving the overall community.

What that has cost Long Island, including the East End, is evident in the dwindling number of local baymen and commercial fishermen who earn their living on the water.

There are economic and other reasons why fishing has declined on the East End, but chief among them is that our estuaries are stressed out. Thus, there aren’t as many clams, oysters, scallops or lobsters for anyone to harvest or build a career on. The science is clear: The poor health of our waterways can be linked to nitrogen — and nitrogen causes algal blooms, which result in brown, red and rust tides that muscle out nutritious plankton, destroy eelgrass and ultimately decimate shellfish populations.

The sweeping Long Island water quality bill that failed in Albany last spring did so in part because there is no real funding mechanism in place to help develop, implement and maintain the type of denitrification systems that could prevent huge amounts of nitrogen from flowing from our septic tanks into the aquifer and ultimately, surface waters. It must be noted that fertilizers from farms, many of which will remain in agriculture in perpetuity thanks to the CPF, contribute greatly to the nitrogen loading of area bays and the Sound. But it’s not the 1970s or 1980s anymore, when cash flowed from a state and federal government still enthusiastic about the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act.

Now, it’s up to us to clean up our waters.

Legislation being proposed by Assemblyman Fried Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) that would dedicate 20 percent of CPF revenues to clean water efforts deserves the full support of East End residents, who would ultimately have to approve such a measure through a referendum. Environmentalist Richard Amper recently suggested in this newspaper that half of that amount should be set aside and made available to any of the five towns that contribute to CPF to pay for local water quality projects with regional significance. This provision should be included in any draft legislation.

One flaw in the CPF is that the towns of Southold and Riverhead generate little money for the fund compared to their wealthier neighbors. But at the same time, they have more farms than those neighbors.

Unlike land, which stays put, water flows throughout all the East End towns. Some of this money needs to be pooled, so to speak.