An ongoing dispute over whether Southampton Town should consider using land preservation money to protect properties already owned by conservation groups brought together a collection of some of the most important names in the long history of land preservation on the East End last week.
Town and state politicians, farmers and farming advocates, and the heaviest hitters in the conservation community gathered at Town Hall on Friday afternoon. It was the first of what organizers avowed would be several meetings on the topic in the coming months, needed to hash out how the town’s bountiful land preservation funds should be spent in the future.
At issue is a proposal for the town to purchase the development rights to 14 acres in Bridgehampton that was given decades earlier to the South Fork Land Foundation. The money, likely several million dollars according to appraisals, would then be put toward the purchase by the Peconic Land Trust of farms that have already had their development rights purchased. Those farms would then, in turn, be sold to farmers at prices far below market rates, which have been inflated in recent years by the growing demand for horse farms, which are legally considered agriculture.
The Peconic Land Trust has said such deals are needed now, and in the future, because the demand for land that has already been protected from residential development, and earmarked for agricultural uses, has pushed its value to $100,000 an acre or more, and out of the reach of farmers.
Critics of this idea say that buying land from publicly avowed conservation groups would cast those organizations’ stated missions in a different light, and could compromise public confidence in the Community Preservation Fund program in general. They have also questioned whether opening the door to such deals would bring other conservation groups to the table with acreage that they own, in search of tapping the robust CPF coffers for additional funding, thereby hampering efforts to take more privately held land off the development table.
“Whether any town should be acquiring lands from not-for-profit organizations is the issue,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., one of the authors of the CPF legislation in the late 1990s. “The town should be looking at whether or not … [these groups] should be treated no differently than if they were any other landowner in the town.
“The other end, as I see it, is that the conservation organizations are doing the same thing the town is doing, and the town shouldn’t be buying anything,” he continued.
Peconic Land Trust President John v.H. Halsey said it is hard to separate the two issues. “Why are we here? It’s about preserving community character,” he said of the initial intentions of the CPF program. “Is it just about open space or is it about agriculture itself? For me, this is about preserving farmland for farmers.”
When the CPF and a variety of land preservation funds that preceded it were created, their stated intentions were to preserve open space for the sake of protecting both undisturbed aquifer recharge areas and farming. But over the last 20 years, legal interpretations of land preserved for “agriculture” have come to include a variety of uses, including horse farms that can typically have thousands of square feet of development.
A recently constructed horse farm owned by “Today Show” host Matt Lauer includes nearly 60,000 square feet of buildings and two houses on land that the town spent more than $3 million to preserve from development. Because of this potential for development, some protected lands have sold for upward of $100,000 an acre.
Mr. Halsey’s group has proposed selling the development rights to 34 acres in Bridgehampton to the town. The land was given to an adjunct organization, the South Fork Land Foundation, in the 1970s by Ronald Lauder, who reaped large tax benefits for donating the land with its development rights still intact. The group said it would use the money to purchase hundreds of more acres of already protected land that would then be sold back to working farm families at bargain prices.
Others sitting on the 15-person panel said the CPF cannot be expected to solve the mounting problems facing farmers on the East End, nor could it if that was the intention.
“We still have 900 acres of farmland left that is not owned by conservation organizations,” said Paul Brennan, a real estate agent from Bridgehampton who also sits on the town’s CPF advisory committee. “We have to get that done first. We can’t stop now and say we want the PLT to give us a list.”
Bob DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End, which led the charge for the creation of the CPF and preservation of open space in the 1980s and 1990s, said the town should complete a full inventory and accounting of its land preservation abilities. Cataloging the land now left in private hands, and listing the town’s needs or wants when it comes to protecting properties owned by conservations groups but which still have their development rights intact is an important first step, he added.
If the gargantuan projected income from the CPF, which has already been approved by voters to run for at least another decade, can cover the anticipated cost of funding acquisitions in both forms, both can be tackled, according to Mr. DeLuca.
“If we can buy the 900 acres and we can still preserve the land [owned by conservation organizations],” added Richard Amper, the director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, “there doesn’t have to be a debate.”