Groundwater Advocates Critical Of Plan To Divvy Up County Land Preservation Funding

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Groundwater protection advocates are blasting a proposal by a North Fork legislator to reapportion Suffolk County land preservation funding to focus more on farmland preservation.

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, himself a farmer from Southold, introduced a bill earlier this year that, if approved, would dedicate half of the funds generated for open space protection via a 0.25-percent county sales tax specifically to purchase the development rights of working farmland.

But the county’s leading groundwater protection organization, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, and other land preservation groups that spurred the creation of the land preservation tax in the 1980s contend that the bill violates the tenets of the Drinking Water Protection Act, which established the special tax, and is an ill-advised and unfair re-purposing of what is now a dwindling supply of money.

“In the first place, it’s against the law—the Drinking Water Protection Program can only be changed by a mandatory referendum,” said Richard Amper, president of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. “And if it wasn’t a violation of the State Constitution, the other thing you would take exception to is that there isn’t really anything left in the Drinking Water Protection Fund.”

Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who represents the South Fork, said he is against Mr. Krupski’s bill and does not expect that it will gain support from other legislators, either. The bill is currently still being considered by a subcommittee of the Suffolk County Legislature and has not been proposed for a vote yet.

Mr. Schneiderman noted that since the county borrowed heavily in years past against the future income from the tax, the bulk of the annual tax revenues go to paying debt service on money already spent on land preservation. The tax now generates only about $5 million per year for new land preservation by the county, a paltry sum in the realm of real estate acquisition, Mr. Schneiderman said.

“I certainly understand where Legislator Krupski is coming from—he’s a farmer, and his district contains, by far, the most farmland in the county, and he’s dedicated to see it preserved,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “I’ve supported a lot of farmland protection, but it’s not the only priority. There’s wetlands, woodlands, drinking water. Each piece has to rise and fall on its own merits.

“To lock in half the money we get at this point just for farmland,” he continued, “I can’t support that.”

Mr. Krupski did not return calls seeking comment on his bill.

Suffolk County has spent more than $300 million on land preservation over the last 20 years, mostly on money borrowed against the future income from the dedicated portion of the sales tax. By borrowing against future revenues, the county was able to more aggressively pursue the acquisition of land deemed important for preservation before it could be developed, rather than putting it off many years.

Southampton Town alone typically brings in $4 million or more each month for its own land preservation efforts through the municipality’s Community Preservation Fund, which is funded by a 2-percent tax on all real estate sales. Each of the five East End towns have their own respective CPFs that are funded by transfer taxes for land preservation purposes.

Mr. Amper said that rather than shuffling an additional million dollars in the sales tax revenues around, the county should be looking to identify new ways to fund farmland protection.

“Instead of quibbling about what percentage of crumbs is going to be spent where,” he said, “Mr. Krupski should put his thinking cap on and find a new source of money for land preservation.”

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