Suffolk Closeup: Why the Island stayed green

Who knew that the program that has become integral to saving eastern Long Island from the sprawl that has overtaken much of the western portion of the island — the Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund (CPF) — has its origin in a program created on Nantucket by a native Long Islander?

I didn’t until I began researching the connections after a visit earlier this month to that island 30 miles out in the Atlantic off Cape Cod. With our sailboat or, a good deal less adventurously, by ferry, I’ve been to most of the islands east of Long Island — Block Island, Fishers Island, Cuttyhunk, Plum Island and Martha’s Vineyard. But I’d never been to Nantucket, and I’m here to report it is one exquisite place. And it will stay beautiful, since half of this t 3 1/2 by 14-mile island is preserved.

Much of the preserved space has come from donations of land or money to acquire property by several private organizations, but much of it, too, is a result of the island’s 2-percent real estate transfer tax earmarked for buying and saving open space. Vaguely I recalled that the CPF on Long Island, which is also based on the 2-percent model, had a Nantucket connection.

Yes, absolutely, confirmed State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), who spearheaded the establishment of CPF and whose district includes Shelter Island. The Nantucket program began in 1999 and earlier this year reached a stupendous $1 billion mark in funds raised. That has gone to not only acquire open space and other environmentally sensitive land here, but development rights to preserve farmland and for historic preservation. At a time of declining or non-existent fiscal support from other levels of government for these purposes, CPF has made all the difference for the five East End towns.

“It’s clear that conservation could not have kept pace with development here without the CPF,” Mr. Thiele said.

How did Mr. Thiele begin working to make the CPF a reality? That starts with Judith Hope. It was 1984 and Ms. Hope, then East Hampton Town supervisor, had flown to Nantucket with her husband Tom Twomey, the recently deceased attorney.

On Nantucket she read about “this wonderful concept of a 2-percent transfer tax to preserve open space. We were very impressed,” recounted Ms. Hope from her East Hampton home. “I brought it to the Town Board.” She also asked Mr. Thiele, then East Hampton Town Planning Board attorney as well as town attorney of adjoining Southampton Town, to look into its applicability for Long Island.

Meanwhile, then East Hampton Councilman Randy Parsons had also read, independently, about the Nantucket program. The Town Board authorized a visit to Nantucket by Mr. Parsons, town planner Tom Thorsen and Peter Garnham, a real estate broker. Some real estate interests were uneasy about the 2-percent notion although Mr. Garnham believed the fears unfounded.

Three decades later, Mr. Parsons, an East Hampton resident now with the Nature Conservancy of Long Island now, comments: “Without the CPF and a dedicated fund for preservation, we would have had a different outcome. So thank you, Nantucket!”

Says Mr. Garnham of Amagansett, now a garden writer and farmer: “There was nothing for the real estate industry to be concerned about. And CPF fulfills a huge need.”

They met on Nantucket with its planning director, Bill Klein, a Long Island native who originated the program. Now retired, Mr. Klein, originally from Syosset and a nephew of former Suffolk County Executive John V. N. Klein, related going to Nantucket to become its planner in 1974.

“I was the first planner they ever hired,” said Mr. Klein from his home in Chicago (he also has a place on Nantucket). Having grown up in Nassau County in the 1950s, he had seen that section of Long Island enveloped in sprawl and had come to an early conclusion about development in Nassau that “this isn’t working.”

He completed an internship at the Nassau County Planning Commission and after graduating from Tufts University, received a master’s degree in regional planning from Penn State. Further informing his understanding of preservation was his uncle, John Klein, the creator of the Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program. Started in 1974, the SCFPP is based on the purchase of development rights from owners of farmland. They receive the difference between what their land is worth as farmland and suburban subdivision and in return it remains in agriculture in perpetuity. It was a first-in-the-nation concept.

Before arriving on Nantucket, Bill Klein had worked as a planner for five years in State College, Pennsylvania.

There he learned about the half-to-one-percent real estate transfer tax set as a “local option” and used for general government revenue purposes by some Pennsylvania communities. With Nantucket heavily engaged in development when he arrived, he asked: Could a similar transfer tax be created for Nantucket, but its proceeds devoted to land preservation?

On the East End, the preservation of Nantucket more closely resembles what has happened on Shelter Island, the greenest of all East End towns, because of involvement by both major private and governmental initiatives. What was so important on Shelter Island, of course, was the acquisition of a third of the island, the Mashomack Preserve, by the Nature Conservancy in 1980.

This is the first of a two-part series. Click next for Part 2.