Court ruling: Development exceptions not allowed on preserved farmland

Special permits and so-called hardship exceptions, which allowed farmers to develop preserved farmland, have been deemed illegal, according to a New York State Supreme Court ruling.

The decision, made Sept. 28 by Justice Thomas Whelan, was in response to a case brought by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society against Suffolk County. The lawsuit claimed the county shouldn’t allow development on preserved farms where public funds were used to purchase development rights.

Specifically, the Pine Barrens Society targeted amendments to the program approved by the Suffolk County Legislature in 2010 and 2013, which the society described as “expansive permit and exemption loopholes” that allowed farmers to build on land that should not have been developed.

It wasn’t immediately clear at press time if any farmer has developed on land preserved by the county.

Suffolk County’s development rights program, enacted in 1974, offers farmers and landowners money in exchange for a legally binding agreement that the land won’t be developed. Subsequent referendum votes have enhanced the program.

In the Supreme Court’s 10-page decision, Mr. Whelan stated that development allowed by the special permits and hardship exemptions “constitute a substantial intrusion upon the public’s right to prohibit development.” He also said exemptions allowed the county’s farmland committee to “grant a host of carte blanche deviations from the very objectives” of the original state farmland preservation statute that the county based its laws upon.

As part of his decision, the justice threw out the two amendments to the purchase of development rights program, declaring the code “null and void and of no further effect.”

Smithtown attorney Jennifer Juengst, who has represented the Pine Barrens Society in the case since it was filed in 2010, said Friday that “It’s been a six-year haul.”  She said the Legislature’s actions circumvented the will of the voters by creating a “back door” for development on protected land.

Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper hailed the ruling as a major victory, saying the county had no right to change a publicly approved program in order to allow more development.

“The court made it clear that politicians cannot alter programs approved by the public,” Mr. Amper said. “It’s obvious that the public would never vote to use public funds to prevent development only to allow farmers to develop the land anyway.”

Suffolk County attorney Dennis Brown said his office is reviewing the decision and has not yet decided whether it will appeal the ruling.

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) was among 16 legislators who voted in favor of the 2013 amendment that was struck down. In an interview Friday, Mr. Krupski said the legislation had been debated publicly before it was adopted and was meant to help farmers meet changing needs on their properties.

“Production changes a lot,” he said. “You need to be able to adapt.”

Mr. Krupski said the criticism of the provisions came from a “lack of understanding” about what kind of development farmers had requested, such as greenhouses — construction he said was supposed to help their farming operations.

He added that the county is “working on a response” to the ruling.

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