Real Estate

Real Estate: Despite economic downturn, farmland protection continues

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Kujawski's farm land on Herricks Lane in Jameport.

Despite the continuing slump in the real estate market, some farmers are still seeking to sell their development rights to local municipalities.

While prices for land acquisition vary depending on the property, Suffolk County and Southold and Riverhead towns all pay from $60,000 to $63,000 an acre for farmland development rights.

Southold land preservation coordinator Melissa Spiro said the town has received a steady flow of applications over the past few years from farmers looking to sell their development rights.

In July, the town preserved about 23 acres at Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm in Cutchogue. Five acres excluded from the nearly $1.4 million deal are along Route 25 and include a house, the barn and associated parking.

Other farmland Southold Town purchased this year includes 28 acres at the Conway farm in Southold for $1.8 million and eight acres at Gerard’s farm in Mattituck for $500,000.

The acquisitions were financed through the town’s Community Preservation Fund, money collected through a 2 percent tax on real estate transfers.

“When the market is good, people try to get more money, but when the economy is bad, people are looking to sell because they need the money,” Ms. Spiro said.

Pamela Greene, director of the county’s Division of Real Property Acquisition & Management, said Suffolk’s acquisition process begins with identifying parcels for preservation, then completing two separate appraisals. After reviewing the appraisals, her group recommends the property’s total value.

“If the value is approved [by the county], an offer is made to the seller,” Ms. Greene said. “If the seller accepts, then it goes into contract.

“A 50 percent approval rate is good sign because it means the prices the county is offering are fair,” she said.

Since 2004, Suffolk County has preserved over 650 acres, including 80 acres of farmland, Ms. Greene said.

Over the summer, the county made a $1.2 million deal with the owners of the Kujawski farm in Jamesport to purchase the development rights to about 20 acres for about $59,000 per acre.

Although Riverhead Town did not make any land deals with farmers this year, it did partner with the county to purchase over 300 acres at the North Fork Preserve in Northville for nearly $18.3 million.

Supervisor Sean Walter said while the preservation fund program helps to protect groundwater, he believes purchasing farmland is more beneficial than buying open space.

“The problem with purchasing open space is large tracts of land are then taken off the tax roll,” he said.

Mr. Walter added that the North Fork Preserve deal will result in a total revenue loss of about $80,000. Riverhead’s share of that loss is $26,000.

Environmentalists have long claimed that municipalities save money through preservation because it means fewer new homes are built, which limits the need for municipal services ranging from schools to police protection.

“We’ve done our part in buying open space,” the supervisor said. “In my opinion, we should focus on farmland preservation … It’s a wonderful way to maintain farming in Riverhead Town and to keep its rural character.”

Mr. Walter said the town isn’t in a position to preserve more land anytime soon because it has “oversubscribed” from its Community Preservation Fund account.

“The problem is future earnings hasn’t materialized,” Mr. Walter said. “I think the farmers know we don’t have any money, so they go to the county.”

Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said he believes farmers’ participation in the preservation programs has slowed over the last few years. To kick-start farmland preservation, Mr. Gergela said his group is working with the county to divide preservation funding into two distinct categories, farmland and open space.

“In our mind, preserving farmland should be given a higher priority at this point in time,” he said. “What good is buying land if people can’t make a living on it?”

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