Suffolk open-space program under review

Farmland in Riverhead. (June 10, 2010) Farmland in Riverhead. (June 10, 2010) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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With dedicated funds drying up, Suffolk's pioneering open-space program should be paused to ensure that the most significant sites benefit, officials recommended this week.

Planning director Sarah Lansdale told the legislature's environment, planning and agriculture committee Monday that it was prudent to stop authorizations -- for at least six months -- of new appraisals, offers and contracts for potential parcels.

A referendum approved by voters in 2007 accelerated and extended county preservation efforts by authorizing a quarter-cent sales tax. Since then, nearly 2,500 acres of land have been purchased using $209 million in bonds from dedicated funds.

Now that the program's bonding authorization has ended, officials said about $15 million "pay as you go" funds remain for preservation purchases not already in process.

Last year alone, the county spent $60 million on open-space acquisitions.

"We need to take a step back to really evaluate where we're at," said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), the committee chairwoman. "We simply can't afford to buy every property."

She emphasized the temporary measure was needed to ensure that the most environmentally significant sites are given top priority for limited funds.

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But Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said any review must consider money already spent by owners of sites with whom the county has begun negotiating. On Monday, the committee tabled his resolution to authorize the $8.9 million acquisition of the old Long Island Beagle Club training site in Riverhead.

The property's owners have already spent money preparing the site for sale.

"If things are in the hopper, you clean those up first," Romaine said.

Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), citing a county deficit of up to $150 million this year, had previously raised the possibility of asking voters to allow the program's dedicated funds to be used to balance the operating budget.

While he didn't raise that again Monday, he endorsed the six-month review.

"It's a radical step," he said. "But it's a necessary step."

Hahn hopes to introduce a resolution that would formally authorize the open-space program reassessment by next week's full legislature meeting."I really think there's an urgency to this," she said.

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