State budget includes $35 million more for farms

In a big boost to a statewide program aimed at protecting farmland, the budget that passed last week in Albany has allocated more money than ever before to the initiative, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced. The 2015-16 state budget added $35 million more for the Farmland Protection Program, a number that, according to the American Farmland Trust, places New York in the top five among states capitals setting money aside for farmland protection.

Of that $35 million, $15 million will support increases in 14 categories, including land conservation, stewardship and invasive species control and prevention throughout New York. The remaining $20 million has been earmarked for the permanent protection of farmland in the Hudson Valley, which is threatened by heavy development, said David Haight, the New York State director for American Farmland Trust.

The $35 million brings the total amount allocated for the program in the new budget to $177 million.

In 2014, Southold Town was awarded more than $1.3 million through the Farmland Protection Program, which helped partly fund the town’s purchase of development rights — thereby permanently preserving — two working farms, said Southold land preservation coordinator Melissa Spiro. Last year was the first time in five years the state offered grants through the program, according to May 2014 article in The Suffolk Times. In 2008, funding for the initiative, which is made available through the state Environmental Protection Fund and administered by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, was cut by more than 50 percent. That changed last year when $20.5 million was secured for the program.

To date, Southold Town has received more than $8 million for the program, helping it to preserve more than 500 acres of land.

Ms. Spiro said when the next round of state grants becomes available, Southold is likely to apply for funding.

That is not so in Riverhead, where Supervisor Sean Walter said the town has no money to cover the costs of matching any state grant it received. Riverhead, unlike Southold, borrowed against future Peconic Community Preservation Fund revenues several times over the past decade, allowing the town to buy up land using the borrowed funds. But now the debt payments eat up all the revenues. Moving forward, Mr. Walter said, he hopes to see the CPF extended in order to give Riverhead a chance to refinance its debt and apply for state grants in the future.

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