03/17/14 12:00pm
03/17/2014 12:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

Saying a lawsuit against the Suffolk County isn’t quite enough, environmentalists have taken to parking lots from Southold to Huntington to get a referendum on this fall’s ballot to halt a county effort to use $33 million in reserved Drinking Water Protection funds. (more…)

03/10/14 8:51am
03/10/2014 8:51 AM
Environmentalists say Suffolk County's 2014 budget illegally used nearly $33 million in dedicated funds. Pictured: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson file photo.)

Environmentalists say Suffolk County’s 2014 budget illegally used nearly $33 million in dedicated funds. Pictured: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson file photo.)

After protesting the budget Suffolk County leaders approved last fall, environmental groups have now sued the county over its use of nearly $33 million in funds that were raised through the Drinking Water Protection Program, a self-imposed tax that Suffolk residents have voted to levy upon themselves several times since the late 1980s.

Saying that the funds comprise one of several dedicated revenue streams created by the sales tax — which will be in effect until 2030 — critics claim the choice to use it to close a budget gap violates the terms under which voters agreed to tax themselves.

“What Suffolk politicians did was not just illegal, it was a violation of the public trust,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which brought the suit together with the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum. “Citizens and taxpayers voted to give government more than $1.5 billion to protect water with the assurance that the funds could not be used for any other purpose without another vote by the people.”

The Drinking Water Protection Fund is filled through a sales tax of one-quarter of one percent. Within that revenue stream are several specific uses, such as open space purchases and a fund dedicated to stabilizing sewer rates for residents. The 2014 budget used $32.8 million from the county’s sewer stabilization fund.

The lawsuit demands that the county return the money to the sewer stabilization fund, along with interest.

Suffolk voters last agreed to renew the tax in 2007 — approving a ballot measure to maintain the tax through 2030. The recent plan laid out by the county intends to start paying back into the sewer stabilization fund in 2017. Last fall, the balance hovered around $140 million, leaving over $100 million left in the sewer stabilization fund.

The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday, and names Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County Legislature and the County of Suffolk all as defendants.

Three legislators voted against the budget last fall: Legislator Tom Barraga (R-East Islip), Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) and Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). Mr. Bellone’s original budget had not called for dipping into the sewer stabilization fund at all, but rather closing the budget gap in the $2.7 billion budget through borrowing from the New York State Dormitory Authority, a path that would have required legislation approved at the state level. A report from the County’s Budget Review Office identified that plan as a risk because of the necessary legislation.

The Pine Barrens Society also took Suffolk to court over its decision to use about $20 million from the same fund in 2011, under the direction of County Exec Steve Bellone. That case is expected to be heard later this year.

An opinion of the county attorney’s office issued last fall defended the use of the funds.

Provided by a spokesperson for Mr. Bellone, the county pointed to case law — considered analogous with Suffolk County — that held that “The New York Court of Appeals has endorsed the statement that ‘laws proposed and enacted by the people under an initiative provision are subject to the same constitutional, statutory, and charter limitations as those passed by the legislature and are entitled to no greater sanctity or dignity.’”

08/02/13 10:00am
08/02/2013 10:00 AM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A reproduction of a painting of a forest fire in the Long Island Pine Barrens is featured in an exhibit detailing the history of the island's oldest forests.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A reproduction of a painting of a forest fire in the Long Island Pine Barrens is featured in an exhibit detailing the history of the island’s oldest forests.

On the Fourth of July in 1993, the “War of the Woods” was coming to a head, and Long Island Pine Barrens Society co-founder John Turner was on the front lines.

Mr. Turner sat upstairs in the chambers of the New York State Senate and Assembly in Albany, tracking the progress of a landmark bill that would protect the Long Island Central Pine Barrens.

On that day, in the closing moments of the year’s legislative session, the act passed unanimously in both houses.

“That was a euphoric moment,” Mr. Turner said.

Senator Ken LaValle, a sponsor of the legislation, recalled seeing environmental activists and developers celebrate as the act was approved.

“People who were combatants in the ‘War of the Woods’ were literally embracing one another, jumping up and down like little kids,” he said.

Pine Barrens wild fire

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Life flourishing in charred forest in Manorville in April, a year the Wildfire of 2012 burned over 1,000 acres of pine barrens.

On July 14, 1993, the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act was signed into law by Gov. Mario Cuomo, creating one of the largest comprehensive land management plans in state history.

Now, more than 20 years later, those who helped drum up support for the legislation say the act — and the cooperation of environmentalists, state politicians and land developers — helped to save more than 100,000 acres of Long Island’s last remaining wilderness and change the future of Long Island.

“It was as though Long Islanders just got up one day and said, ‘The pavement stops here.’ ” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society. “If it hadn’t been for litigation and the Pine Barrens Act, [development] would have turned the Pine Barrens into a piece of swiss cheese.”

The Pine Barrens — named by Native Americans and early colonists for the abundance of pine trees and the infertility of its porous, sandy soil — were born after the last glaciers retreated from Long Island, roughly 12,000 years ago. The Pine Barrens sit atop Long Island’s designated sole source aquifer, recharging a section of its drinking water supply.

At one time, the Pine Barrens covered a quarter of Long Island, or about 250,000 acres. But much of the forest was cut down during the late 19th century to be used as cordwood for a growing New York City. In the 1970s, about 125,000 acres remained untouched. By the 1980s, however, nearly 5,000 acres of forest were being lost to development each year.

Preservation efforts began in earnest with the Pine Barrens Society, founded in 1977 by John Cryan, Robert McGrath and Mr. Turner.

“We would give talks to anybody who would listen,” Mr. Turner said. “It was just a tireless campaign by the society to get the word out.”

The group pushed back against pressure to develop the land and filed a lawsuit in 1989 against Suffolk County and the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton to stop development.

Ken LaValle

Ken LaValle

The society ultimately lost the case in the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, which said a law would need to be adopted to protect the land. The group appealed to local politicians to take up the cause and Mr. LaValle and then-assemblyman Tom DiNapoli became involved, meeting one night at an Italian restaurant to discuss how to engineer support for legislation to protect the forest.

“He and I sat down over a spaghetti dinner as two Italian boys and we talked about our strategy,” Mr. LaValle said.

Their solution was simple: Get everyone — environmentalists and developers alike — together at the same table.

“We began to talk about this word by word, line by line, even where we were putting commas and periods,” Mr. LaValle said. “The stakeholders actually sat around the table and wrote [the law].”

Ultimately they reached a “grand bargain” to keep a core area of about 53,000 acres safe from development while opening the remaining 45,000 acres to “compatible growth” that would be subject to environmental safeguards.

The act sailed through the state Legislature, but faced another test: ratification by the three affected towns, any of which could have vetoed the plan.

“We weren’t out of the woods yet,” Mr. Turner said. “If the plan in 1995 had not been adopted this whole thing would have fallen apart.”

Though Brookhaven and Southampton towns quickly came on board, the Town of Riverhead resisted, citing concerns over development at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

“The Town of Riverhead was being, how we say, difficult,” Mr. Turner said. “But ultimately things worked out.”

Since then, the Pine Barrens Protection Act and the subsequent ratification of land acquisitions across the region have served as a model for policy scholars.

“We’ve gotten offers to lecture at law schools across the country,” Mr. LaValle said.

On the anniversary of the act’s passage last month, co-sponsor Mr. DiNapoli — now the state comptroller — said his legislative legacy was defined by the Pine Barrens Protection Act.

“Of all the issues I’ve been involved with, the Pine Barrens really stands out as the one I’m most proud of,” he said in a video interview the Pine Barrens Society created for this year’s anniversary. “We achieved something for the environment and for economic development and for public health.”

Advocates say much of the credit for the act’s success belongs to Long Island residents who supported the legislation.

“The people of Long Island did a remarkable thing in the name of water preservation and habitat protection,” Mr. Amper said.

But politicians and activists alike say more can still be done to protect the Pine Barrens and its water supply.

The Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission was formed through the act, and is tasked with stewardship of the land regulated by the act. It’s made up of representatives from the state, local towns and environmental organizations.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter is one of its members.

“It’s been a wonderful success, but I think it’s imperative that the supervisors keep taking their roles as commission members seriously,” he said, adding that in recent years the commission has included more direct participation from stakeholders.

“We have to be vigilant in what our original mission is, which is protecting the Pine Barrens, but not … adding on another layer of government bureaucracy,” Mr. Walter said. “It’s a difficult balance but I think the Pine Barrens Commission has done a good job of keeping that balance.”

Mr. Turner said politicians and the commission will both have to tackle managing the wildlife and forest to keep the Pine Barrens safe from invasive species and out-of-control wildfires, one of which burned more than 1,000 acres of the Pine Barrens in April 2012.

“Those lands are a gift to all Long Islanders,” he said.

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To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Pine Barrens Protection Act, an exhibit has been installed at the Suffolk County Center in Riverside on the history of the Pine Barrens.

It will be on display in the lobby of the Evans K. Griffing building through Sept. 30. 

07/11/13 8:00am
07/11/2013 8:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | A memory and a roadside attraction at Reeves Farm in Aquebogue.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | A memory and roadside attraction at Reeves Farm.

Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper and 1st District county Legislator Al Krupski have been engaged in a public battle in recent weeks over Mr. Krupski’s draft of legislation that would give farmland preservation a guaranteed 50 percent of whatever land protection money the county has at its disposal, which these days isn’t much.

In keeping with his public persona, Mr. Amper wrote an opinion piece, published in this newspaper last month, in which he accused the legislator of a nefarious scheme to undermine the county’s tried-and-true land preservation program. He went as far as to suggest that Mr. Krupski deserves the name “Korruptski.” In a response published the following week, the legislator took a more low-key approach and discussed the need to preserve active farmland.

All of this ignores the geopolitical forces at play. The East End has only two representatives in the 18-member Suffolk County Legislature, crucial numbers given that when new legislation is laid on the table the first thought that comes to many lawmakers’ minds is, “How does this benefit my district?” When the topic is farmland preservation, the answer for 16 representatives is, “It doesn’t.” To be fair, there would be no county farmland program without the support of non-farming communities, who realized that losing productive, valuable agricultural land would be a blow to the entire county, not just a few East End towns.

Mr. Krupski’s bill would upset the political equilibrium that gives all of Suffolk, particularly the West End towns that dominate the Legislature, a shot at open space buys, even if for only a tiny parcel.

Putting the politics and strident criticism aside, the Krupski bill raises an important and timely question: What lands should be protected going forward?

Mr. Amper has led the opposition to allowing greenhouses to be built on preserved land, a position we share. It’s true, the days of the old-time farmer riding a tractor through row crops are all but a memory, and growers must have the flexibility to respond to a changing market. But preserving open space is a key component of county and town farmland programs.

Mr. Amper also correctly points out that some farms have fallen into uses that no one imagined when the county created the nation’s first ag preservation program in the 1970s. Some wineries, for example, are little more than catering halls; others are open-air saloons. And when objections are raised, we’re often told that the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which has the power to override local land use regulations, sets virtually no limits on what commercial activities can occur on farmland.

The Krupski bill forces the issue of how much money should be invested in new farmland preservation projects and what new restrictions, if any, should follow. It’s not a question of restricting farm operations; it’s a matter of better defining which farms fit in with the public protection goals.

11/02/10 4:37pm
11/02/2010 4:37 PM

The Long Island Pine Barrens Society has filed a lawsuit against Suffolk County over the county Legislature’s recent move to allow more development on preserved farmland.
In the past, construction for agricultural operations was allowed to cover up to 10 to 15 percent of a preserved property, depending on the circumstances.
The new rules, adopted Sept. 16, allow farmers to develop up to 25 percent of a parcel for which development rights have been sold if they can show the county’s farmland commission that a lower limit would pose a hardship.
Permitted development includes barns, equipment storage buildings and greenhouses with foundations.
The society’s lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Riverhead, calls for farmers who have sold their development rights but also built on their land to return the money they received for the development rights.
The county responded to the suit with a prepared statement from the county attorney’s office: “The lawsuit lacks all merit and the legislation is completely lawful and valid.”
Announcing the lawsuit in a press release issued Tuesday, the Pine Barrens Society cited as a prime example of the type of development it wants to stop Center Moriches farmer Russell Weiss’s 2007 decision to remove the topsoil from his preserved farmland and erect permanent industrial greenhouses with foundations.
“The farmers can’t have their cake and eat it too,” Pine Barrens Society president Richard Amper said in the press release. “If they want to develop their land, then they can’t sell the development rights to the public.”
Mr. Amper said that the county’s farmland preservation program was approved through a public referendum and that the county’s decision to allow development on the protected properties constituted a gift of public assets without a public purpose.
Mr. Amper also recently took Southold Town to task on a property in Mattituck, which already has several greenhouses. The town is considering purchasing the development rights for this property under its own local farmland preservation program. Town officials have said that the greenhouses are within the town’s requirement that structures not cover more than 20 percent of the property.
[email protected]

10/27/10 6:53pm
10/27/2010 6:53 PM

The Long Island Pine Barrens Society has filed a lawsuit against Suffolk County over the county Legislature’s recent move to allow more development on preserved farmland.
In the past, construction for agricultural operations was allowed to cover up to 10 to 15 percent of a preserved property, depending on the circumstances.
The new rules, adopted Sept. 16, allow farmers to develop up to 25 percent of a parcel for which development rights have been sold if they can show the county’s farmland commission that a lower limit would pose a hardship.
Permitted development includes barns, equipment storage buildings and greenhouses with foundations.
The society’s lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Riverhead, calls for farmers who have sold their development rights but also built on their land to return the money they received for the development rights.
The county responded to the suit with a prepared statement from the county attorney’s office: “The lawsuit lacks all merit and the legislation is completely lawful and valid.”
Announcing the lawsuit in a press release issued Tuesday, the Pine Barrens Society cited as a prime example of the type of development it wants to stop Center Moriches farmer Russell Weiss’s 2007 decision to remove the topsoil from his preserved farmland and erect permanent industrial greenhouses with foundations.
“The farmers can’t have their cake and eat it too,” Pine Barrens Society president Richard Amper said in the press release. “If they want to develop their land, then they can’t sell the development rights to the public.”
Mr. Amper said that the county’s farmland preservation program was approved through a public referendum and that the county’s decision to allow development on the protected properties constituted a gift of public assets without a public purpose.
Mr. Amper also recently took Southold Town to task on a property in Mattituck, which already has several greenhouses. The town is considering purchasing the development rights for this property under its own local farmland preservation program. Town officials have said that the greenhouses are within the town’s requirement that structures not cover more than 20 percent of the property.
[email protected]