Column: Victory for farmland preservation in Suffolk

Suffolk County’s visionary farmland preservation program has just achieved a triumph. The state’s Appellate Division last month rejected a ruling by a state Supreme Court justice in 2016 that hamstrung the program. Conceived by County Executive John Klein, the program, begun in 1974, is based on the brilliant and then novel idea of purchasing development rights. Farmers are paid the difference between the value of their land in agriculture and what they could get for it if they sold it to a developer. In return, the land is kept in agriculture in perpetuity.

The Suffolk program, emulated across the nation, has been central in keeping Suffolk a top agricultural county in New York State. Not only do the farms of the county, on some of the best soils on the planet, produce food and other agricultural products, but they are integral to Suffolk’s thriving tourism industry.

However, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society brought a misguided lawsuit claiming that allowing “structures” on preserved farmland, as permitted by amendments to the program approved by the Suffolk Legislature, was not legal. And Justice Thomas Whelan supported the claim.

Great credit for the successful appeal goes to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, the Suffolk Legislature and the county farmland committee. Once the lawsuit was brought, the county promptly arranged to retain a law firm that has long fought for the environment, Riverhead-based Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley and Quartararo. Handling the appeal was a partner in the firm, Lisa Clare Kombrink, who has a specialty in farmland preservation as former Southampton Town attorney. In a statement, Twomey, Latham noted how it “fought back the efforts of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society to jeopardize the county program.”

If the ruling had been allowed to stand it would “effectively gut the farmland preservation program,” said Mr. Bellone. “If farmers can’t do the things necessary to run a successful operation, we can’t have farming here anymore.”

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who is a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer, said: “There is great diversity in agriculture, and not everyone understands what is needed to operate a productive farm or agricultural operation. Agriculture is changing. Different farming techniques, new technology and methods are emerging, along with the opportunities they present. Infrastructure needs may change. We need to adapt to accommodate these changes if we want to preserve agriculture and farming.”

Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac) said: “Our critically important agricultural industry will only survive if farmers can undertake the basic practices that make a farm work.”

The Appellate Division in its majority decision stated the county’s “special use permits” for accessory structures “all constitute or are sufficiently related to agricultural production.”

Justice Whelan “basically misconstrued what the county’s original intent was — to prevent the development of farmland but still allow typical and acceptable farm practices to be utilized,” explained state Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor). The farmland preservation program “didn’t freeze in a moment of time” structures that could be on a farm. Farmers who have put their land into preservation under the program, said Mr. Thiele, have been “entitled” to build sheds, barns and other structures “as long as they complied with the definition of agricultural practices. The idea was that farming is dynamic and that there would have to be changes in the future.”

John Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, said Suffolk’s “landmark” farmland preservation program “is about assuring the future of farming and agricultural production first and foremost” and, “agricultural production by definition includes structures like barns, greenhouses and fences.” The program, “the first of its kind in the country, was created to protect not only farmland but farming. Farm operations by definition are the land, the structures, the improvements and the practices necessary to perform agricultural production.”

Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, emphasized that “farmers need to have the ability to change with the times … Farming today is very sophisticated and complicated … No farmer is going to preserve their land if they can’t continue as a farm operation and that means with modern agriculture having the necessary infrastructure in order to farm.”

By bringing its lawsuit, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society broke a long tradition of environmental groups in Suffolk joining in a “big tent” approach, working cooperatively with each other. Whether it had to do with open space, farmland preservation, preserving the Pine Barrens, clean water, battling nuclear power in Suffolk and challenging offshore oil drilling, they have — until the Pine Barrens Society’s lawsuit — worked in harmony.

Karl Grossman is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.