A proposal by the Peconic Land Trust to sell the development rights on land it owns in Sagaponack to Southampton Town has drawn criticism from other conservation groups and some local officials, who have called it an inappropriate use of the Community Preservation Fund and a controversial precedent for land preservation efforts.
Critics said this week that the implications inherent in the Southampton-based organization’s interest in selling development rights on land that was donated to a group created under its umbrella, the South Fork Land Foundation, would betray the public trust in both the mission of land preservation groups and the use of the CPF’s large pool of money.
“People make contributions to the Peconic Land Trust, and the Peconic Land Trust says they are protecting farmland—they can’t then come back and say the land isn’t protected, so we want the CPF to protect it, and if the CPF won’t, then we’re going to develop that land,” said Richard Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an open space preservation group. “That would undermine the land trust and compromise the CPF as a whole, and reduce public confidence in something they’ve not only believed in but invested in.”
The two parcels that are the subject of the preservation discussion total 34 acres and are located off Highland Terrace in Sagaponack, surrounding other large parcels of farmland that the town has already preserved though the purchase of development rights. The land is owned by the South Fork Land Foundation, which was created in the 1970s specifically to accept the donation of dozens of acres of land from cosmetics executive Ronald Lauder. The foundation has its own board of directors but acts mostly as an adjunct of the more organized Peconic Land Trust, a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation.
Peconic Land Trust President John v.H. Halsey said this week that the organization was approached by representatives of the town’s Community Preservation Fund Committee and the Agricultural Advisory Committee about the possibility of the development rights purchase. The town is in the process of earmarking the land it intends to purchase with the first $30 million of a $125 million borrowing plan against future CPF revenues to secure large chunks of open space before they are developed.
Mr. Halsey said the PLT would use the money from the prospective sale to continue its mission of purchasing farmland and reselling it to farmers at greatly reduced prices. Mr. Halsey said that even land with its development rights removed has become too valuable—$100,000 an acre or more—for farmers to afford, because it often can still be used for horse farms or to expand sprawling lawns of neighboring estates.
Mr. Halsey said that the sale of the development rights from the land could allow them to purchase and resell hundreds of acres of farmland that would ensure it remain in active agricultural use. He added, however, that even the subdivision and sale of two or three building lots from the land could also raise enough money to preserve many times as much more land.
“We have the right to subdivide the property, and to the extent that we can access equity in that, we feel our obligation is to ensure that we have food production remain on our farmland,” Mr. Halsey said. “Any non-profit has to make hard decisions sometimes. Obviously, if we have our druthers, we would rather sell all of the development rights and use that capital to further our mission.”
The trust and the land foundation subdivided a 1-acre lot out of another 11-acre parcel the foundation owns on Hedges Lane in 2011 to make way for the relocation of a historic “four-square” farmhouse, which was then sold for nearly $2.5 million. Similar to the current proposal, the trust used some of that money to purchase 7 acres of farmland—after Southampton Town and Suffolk County spent $4.3 million to buy the development rights—and sold it back to the farmers who work the land for just $22,000 per acre.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., one of the authors of the Community Preservation Fund law, said the sale of development rights on the Peconic Land Trust property would be legal under the CPF bylaws. But, he added, the purchase does not on its face appear to be of the sort most had in mind when the program was created, using a 2-percent tax on most land transfers to fund land preservation.
“There’s good intentions here—the money would be used to protect other lands in the town—but there’s a slippery slope the town should consider,” he said. “Voters voted for the CPF thinking the money was going to be used to preserve land that is not preserved now. So should public dollars be used to acquire things that there is at least a perception are protected already?”
After preliminary discussions, Town Board members were split about whether to proceed. Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said she is not comfortable with the proposal, though she lauded the trust’s mission and said she would be in favor of looking at ways the CPF could be used to keep more preserved farmland as working farms. Council members Christine Scalera and Bridget Fleming said they could not discuss any specific transactions, but were both in favor of furthering the trust’s goals of keeping farmland for farming.
“Agriculture is part of the fabric of our community, and the CPF is there to keep the context of our community preserved,” Ms. Scalera said. “There is a much larger goal in mind here, for them, balancing the policy decisions and using the money to maintain farmland. That’s an economic reality—they have to raise money in order to facilitate the Peconic Land Trust mission.”