Less open space and farmland was preserved last year on Long Island than in any year since 1996, according to a new report from a conservation group that warned the slowdown could endanger the region's environmental health and economy.

But local officials and builders' groups said the situation was not as dire as the report indicated, particularly in light of the economic downturn.

In the report, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society said that 771 acres were preserved from development last year - half the amount set aside in 2008, and a 61.4 percent decline since 2007. The figures are based on information requested from the state, counties and towns under the open records law.

"Unhappily, government has lost its way," said the report, an annual release since 2007. "Despite continued public support for land conservation, unabated notwithstanding the recession, Long Island's current crop of politicians has fallen down on the job."

Failure to protect the region's remaining open space will harm drinking water in underground aquifers and hurt tourism, fishing and farming, said Richard Amper, the group's executive director.

The report blasted Gov. David A. Paterson's proposal to halt open space purchases by the state, which is struggling to remain solvent. Environmental advocates fear a moratorium on purchases would put the Long Island Pine Barrens Act at risk because the state would not be able to buy land from property owners in the core protection area of the pine barrens. Development there is limited to protect the deep aquifers below that supply Long Island drinking water.

Paterson defended the proposal in a statement Tuesday, saying "the unfortunate reality of closing an over $9-billion deficit is that there is less funding available for many worthy initiatives across all areas of state spending."

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Amper also criticized Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, saying his administration had preserved less land than either of his two predecessors.

But county officials said the charge was misleading because land now costs more and fewer big parcels are available. "We can't force people to sell us their land," said Carrie Meek Gallagher, Suffolk's commissioner for energy and the environment.

Levy spokesman Dan Aug said Suffolk spent an average of $80 million each year on open space during the Levy administration, compared with an annual average of $37 million under Patrick Halpin and $18 million under Robert Gaffney.

Suffolk has spent more on open space preservation than any other county in New York State, said Tom Daniels, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's city and regional planning department.

Builders' groups called Amper's concerns overblown. "I certainly don't see a crisis if you are spending less of the public's money to take property off the tax rolls and leave the municipalities to foot the bill for maintenance," said Ira Tane, president of the Long Island Builders Institute.

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This land is our land

 

Total open space and farmland preserved on Long Island, and the total paid.

2009: 771 acres [half that preserved in 2008; 61.45% decline comp with 2007]

2008:1,542 acres [22.9% decline since 2007]

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2007: 2,000 acres

 

Total cost

 

2009: $129,666,610 [53.8% decline since 2008; 54.6% decline comp with 2007]

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2008: $280,771,236

2007: $285,759,911

Figures are based on information requested from the state and local counties and towns under the Open Records Law. Nassau said the 2007 total did not reflect $16.9 million spent on 54.63 acres. While the group divides the acreage of joint purchases by the percentage that each purchasing entity paid, Suffolk includes the entire acreage of each purchase in their countywide totals.

SOURCE: Long Island Pine Barrens Society