Dobie: Fertile ground for farmland, housing

Farms on the East End are harvesting asparagus,

Farms on the East End are harvesting asparagus, spinach and sour grass.

Michael Dobie

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday Michael Dobie

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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We've reached an interesting juncture on Long Island as one vaunted generation prepares to give way to another.

We've been here before, and the handoff from the Greatest Generation to their baby boomer children was fairly smooth. But the transfer that's happening now, from the boomers to their kids, is facing a real rupture.

Young people starting out can't get traction and senior citizens on fixed incomes are bleeding slowly. Housing that neither can afford is helping to drive them away. On the East End, it's the next generation of farmers that is handcuffed, by sky-high prices for farmland.

They sound like unrelated problems. But they're two sides of the same economic coin.

Affordable housing and affordable farmland.

Each is difficult to create, and we need more of both. How we deal with that will say a lot about us as a region, what we value, what we want our future to look like, whether we think it's important to keep our people here.

Farmland is expensive. For years, farm families have been forced to sell their land to make sure their heirs have money to pay huge estate taxes. So, beginning in the 1970s, Suffolk County, the five East End towns and various land trusts moved to protect farms and farmers by purchasing development rights to thousands of acres.

Though stripping those rights lowers the value of the land, at $100,000 per acre or more it's still too costly for young farmers. But the price increasingly has been right for wealthy neighbors, who buy farmland to add to their estates -- for the view, a lawn, or a horse farm. Either way, some of the richest soil anywhere ceases to be farmed.

The Peconic Land Trust has an ingenious solution, teaming with towns, county and private benefactors to buy development rights plus additional protections, such as equestrian rights and a mandate that the land be leased to a farmer if it stays fallow for two-and-a-half years. In one deal, the trust sold a Sagaponack farm to a farming couple for $22,000 per acre, a great price. And the restrictions made it unattractive to anyone who wanted it for a lawn.

But how do you keep such land forever affordable? Land trust president John v.H. Halsey and his staff studied successful affordable housing programs around the country and adopted their tools, including tying future costs to changes in median income or the consumer price index.

The trust studied affordable housing programs off Long Island, because that's not something we do well. There are some rays of hope, with a project being built in Coram and one approved for Melville, but scads more have been derailed by community protests.

Even creative solutions have run aground. North Hempstead Town several years ago tried to create affordable housing for young people and seniors by allowing homeowners to rent space to as many as three unrelated tenants. Hundreds of angry residents descended on town hall, complaining of urbanization and transients, and the plan was repealed.

The town's attempt to use existing housing stock to address its affordable problem was similar to Suffolk's passage of a law last year requiring protected farms to be used for agriculture -- an incentive to lease unused land to young farmers.

Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, is mulling an idea that links solutions to the two problems: Let Suffolk put the farm development rights it buys into a bank to give to developers for the density needed to build affordable housing in municipalities that agree to host the projects. It's an idea worth exploring.

These are hard issues that relate to the character of our communities and who can afford to live in them. We're amid the next handoff, and can't afford a fumble.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.