Faced with dwindling funds, the Suffolk County Legislature on Tuesday will consider an overhaul of its system for buying environmental tracts and farmland to ensure that the county selects only the most crucial parcels.
Supporters led by Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chairwoman of the environment committee, say that under current rules, each purchase occurs in a vacuum without regard to other deals that may be pending, the significance of other parcels and how much money will be left for subsequent purchases.
"We need to look at these properties together, not first-come, first-serve like a deli," Hahn said.
The proposal won unanimous approval in legislative committee last week. However, some lawmakers said the new procedures could politicize the purchase process, delay acquisitions and keep the county from responding to the changing real estate market.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, expressed concern that county officials may seek to stall purchases in order to tap the pine barrens fund to help close the county's $250 million budget deficit.
"The priorities have already been identified, and it's a no-brainer which ones to buy," Amper said. "The program is already on life support and the county legislature appears ready to pull the plug to kill the program entirely."
Hahn responded: "There is no interest in raiding the fund. We just want to make sure the little money left is spent properly."
Hahn and others say the county needs to be more selective: The pine barrens fund has $23.8 million, but $21.3 million of that is tied up in pending offers, contracts and deals in negotiation. The environmental program is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax.
Currently, lawmakers approve a resolution authorizing planning for a particular environmental parcel, including an appraisal, negotiations with sellers and a tentative purchase agreement. There is no further review until lawmakers vote on the final sale.
The proposal would split the acquisition process into two parts: The legislature would enact an initial resolution to authorize an appraisal, determine if a potential seller is interested and assess opportunities for public/private funding arrangements. A county environmental panel would also review pending appraisals and set offer amounts.
The legislature would enact a second motion to move forward with negotiations after its environment committee had prioritized properties based on available funding. County legislators then would vote on the final sale.
Thomas Vaughan, an aide to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said the new process would give lawmakers more information about a tract's worth and environmental value before they decide whether to enter negotiations.
But several lawmakers said giving the legislature's environmental committee the power to set priorities could lead to lawmakers favoring parcels in their districts.
"My concern is that we're politicizing the process, and that's a big concern," said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville).
Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) said the purchase process could lengthen, making it difficult to respond to market changes. "The real estate market can change quickly and we could lose property to development," he said.
Hahn said the changes would add only four to five months, and that the new system will allow lawmakers to plan for key purchases.
The Suffolk County Legislature tomorrow will consider an overhaul of its system for purchasing environmental tracts and farmland, but funding is becoming scarce:
Fund for environmental land
Purchases already in the pipeline: $21,363,426
In contract: 8 tracts (78.5 acres): $4,952,558
Accepted offers: 23 tracts
(213.4 acres): $13,060,868
In negotiation: 2 tracts
(30.5 acres): $3,350,000
Remaining after planned
Other funding expected in 2013:
Sales tax revenue for land
purchases: $4.5-5 million
Estimated funds from deals
that fall through: $1 million
SOURCE: SUFFOLK COUNTY LEGISLATURE;
DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT