File photo: Peter Blasl

It is shocking that a local environmental organization brought a lawsuit challenging the implementation of the Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program, a visionary program which has been the key to saving an important and historical activity here and keeping Suffolk a top agricultural county in New York State.

A State Supreme Court justice has ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society claiming that allowing “structures” on preserved farmland, permitted by amendments to the program approved by the Suffolk Legislature, was not legal. Suffolk County is appealing this October decision by Justice Thomas Whelan.

If the ruling is allowed to stand it would “effectively gut the Farmland Preservation Program,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. “If farmers can’t do the things necessary to run a successful operation, we can’t have farming here anymore.”

At a press conference two weeks ago, outrage was expressed over what has happened. Among those present were numerous county legislators from western and central Suffolk including Dwayne Gregory of Amityville, the legislature’s presiding officer, Rob Colarco of Patchogue, Kate Browning of Shirley, Kevin McCaffrey of Lindenhurst, Dr. William Spencer of Centerport, Sarah Anker of Mount Sinai and Leslie Kennedy of Nesconset. Their attendance demonstrated, said Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, “that this is not just about the East End—this is countywide.”

Indeed, having farms in Suffolk is integral to Suffolk County.

Also at the press conference, of course, were legislators Al Krupski of Cutchogue and Bridget Fleming of Noyac whose districts encompass the East End. Krupski’s district includes both Riverhead and Southold Towns.

Carpenter, in his comments, stressed that “farmers need to have the ability to change with the times.” They need to have “structures for farm equipment, to protect animals” and greenhouses, among other buildings.

Krupski, who led the press conference and is a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer, said: “There is great diversity in agriculture, and not everyone understands what is needed to operate a productive farm or agricultural operation. Agriculture is changing. Different farming techniques, new technology and methods are emerging, along with the opportunities they present. Infrastructure needs may change. We need to adapt to accommodate these changes if we want to preserve agriculture and farming.”

John Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, said the Land Trust “is very concerned about the recent court ruling and its impact on our local working farms so important to Long Island’s jobs and tourist economy.”

Suffolk’s “landmark” Farm Preservation Program “is about assuring the future of farming and agricultural production first and foremost” and, “Agricultural production by definition includes structures like barns, greenhouses and fences. Such structures are essential to the business of farming, and do not just benefit the farmer, but also the public, residents and visitors alike, who are afforded access to a wide variety of locally grown products, including food, wine and horticultural products. In short, agriculture is a central component of Long Island’s history and community character from which all benefit.”

Riverhead farmer Mark Zaweski, a member of the Suffolk County Farmland Commission, said the lawsuit “has far-reaching consequences to the already burdened Suffolk County farmers. Equipment storage buildings, greenhouses to start young seedlings for early market sales as well as high tunnels to prolong the growing season are of utmost importance in today’s evolving agricultural industry….For equine and any animal production, shelters are required by law.” If the ruling sticks, “farmers who have sold their development rights will have a difficult time continuing on, and those that haven’t will not even consider entering into the program, which then leaves those farms for possible development into more homes and subdivisions.”

The Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program, conceived by County Executive John Klein, is a brilliant program begun in 1974 based on what was then a first-in-the-nation idea: the purchase of “development rights” from farmers. Farmers would be paid the difference between the value of their land if kept in agriculture and what it would bring if sold off for development. In return, the land is kept in agriculture in perpetuity. Some 10,636 farmland acres have been saved in Suffolk through the program. It has been emulated across the United States.

“The original intent of the program was to be a working land program,” notes Carpenter, a veteran of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

The lawsuit is misguided and needs to be overturned—to save Suffolk as a place of working farms. Mr. Krupski has formed a committee with among its members land preservation specialists, local officials and farm representatives which is focusing on the best ways to address the lawsuit including through new legislation on the county and state levels.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.

Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.

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