Mattituck preservation plan draws controversy

Southold is slated to purchase the development rights on more than eight acres of land at the Flora Nurseries on Wickham Avenue in Mattituck, but critics worry that the town will set a bad precedent by preserving land that already has greenhouses on it.

Southold Town’s plan to preserve 8.26 acres owned by Flora Nurseries on Wickham Road in Mattituck by buying the development rights for more than half a million dollars has met with some resistance because part of the property is covered by greenhouses.

At an Aug. 24 public hearing on the acquisition, two farmers on the Town Board spoke passionately in favor of approving the purchase. But Councilman Chris Talbot read a letter from Long Island Pine Barrens Society president Richard Amper rebuking the town for planning to use Community Preservation Fund (CPF) money to save land that already is developed. Board members tabled a vote on the purchase, citing concerns to be raised with the town’s planning department and land preservation committee.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said that a fraction of the property, only about 16,000 square feet, is covered by greenhouses, well within the threshold for preserved land.

But in his letter, Mr. Amper said that his group had been complaining for three years about Suffolk County’s practice of buying the development rights to land on which “industrial agriculture” was practiced. He said he was concerned that Southold was following the county’s lead.

“It was never an agricultural subsidy act,” he said of the state law that authorized the creation in all five East End towns of a local CPF, adding that the public is unlikely to continue to support the land preservation program if it is used to subsidize agricultural businesses instead of preserving open lands.

He added that approval of the proposed purchase would constitute “a gift of public wealth without public benefit.” He urged that the town drop the property from its CPF priority list and review the status of the rest of the 1,200 prime agricultural acres in town that are considered eligible for preservation.

The town was planning to pay $63,000 an acre for a development rights easement on 8.26 acres of a 10.1-acre parcel, which is held by a company known as 6900 Wickham Avenue LLC. The LLC is controlled by beefsteak tomato farmer Richard Girard.

“He probably produces more tomatoes from that small farm than all the tomatoes grown on the North Fork these days,” Mr. Russell said. “When we talk about words like sustainability, we need to mean it. … The greenhouses may look enormous, but on the totality, they don’t cover more than 20 percent of this property.”

Councilman Bill Ruland, a farmer, said the property is bordered on three sides by protected land. “It would be imprudent for the Town Board to let this go to development,” he said. “They produce food year round … As this country goes on, more and more food will be grown this way.”

“It is a key parcel in a pretty large block of land where the development rights have been protected,” added Councilman Al Krupski, also a farmer. “Today there’s greenhouses there. In 50 years, who knows what will be there. If this land is protected, it will be in agriculture.”

A vote on the acquisition had been scheduled for the Town Board’s Sept. 21 meeting, but was tabled.

Town attorney Martin Finnegan said this week that the board is awaiting feedback from planning director Heather Lanza, who has been out on leave, before going ahead with the vote.

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