Editorial: Where does the public fit in this farmland debate?

A feud between Suffolk County officials and a local environmentalist over farmland development rights is reaching a fever pitch. Essentially at stake is whether farmers have the right to build on properties where development rights have been sold.

In 2007, Suffolk voters approved a referendum authorizing county officials to pay farmers not to develop their properties using funds from the drinking water protection program. Amendments approved by the Legislature in 2010 and 2013 — both of which were to allow requests for permits and exemptions for farmers to build certain structures, including barns, farm stands and greenhouses — were the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which alleged the “loopholes” were illegal.

In September, the New York State Supreme Court agreed with the Pine Barrens Society in a decision the county is now appealing.

Last month, members of our editorial board sat down with the society’s executive director, Richard Amper, to better understand his position on the issue. He later penned an opinion piece that appeared on this website entitled “Big win on farmland for voters, taxpayers.”

In both the conversation we had with Mr. Amper and his subsequent op-ed, he argued that the county should not have amended the law without voter approval. If Suffolk voters approved the law through a referendum, he said, it should only be changed through a referendum.

Mr. Amper also said he believes county residents are upset with the type of development that has taken place at local farms, including light construction for “agritainment” purposes.

While this newspaper tends to agree with Mr. Amper that the public should have a say in any changes to a law it was asked to approve, we don’t believe he’s entirely accurate in capturing the mindset of voters.

Although there are myriad frustrations over the number of visitors some farms attract in peak season and the amount of traffic on local roads, we find it hard to believe those concerns have generated enough discontent that the public would want to undermine the program that has allowed many of those properties to remain farms.

We also don’t believe most of the 90,000-plus county residents who voted to approve the aforementioned proposition did so because they didn’t want to see barns, farm stands, greenhouses and family attractions built on farmland. They voted to make it less likely that vast open spaces would be sold to out-of-town commercial interests proposing big-box stores and strip malls that crush local businesses. They also didn’t want to see any more farms turn into the type of residential developments that flood local school districts with new students and lead to sharp increases in property tax bills.

If it ever did come to another public vote, we’re afraid Mr. Amper might end up disappointed.