The voters of Suffolk County have consistently embraced the idea of taxing themselves to preserve open space and farmland. Now, Suffolk is at a turning point. The funds available for this purpose will not be as bountiful in the near future. So the county needs to step back, pause, and become more strategic, streamlined and efficient in deciding which land to save from the bulldozer.
That does not mean abandoning preservation, though some in the county legislature would like to do just that. The rationale is as compelling as ever. A central goal is drinking-water protection. The more development, the greater the danger to our sole-source aquifer. And overdevelopment of the East End could devastate tourism, a cornerstone of our economy. People don't go there to see parking lots or houses. They go for the beaches, the vineyards, the farm stands. Preserving them brings in tourism dollars. Losing them would cost us tax revenue and jobs. And buying development rights to farms keeps that land in agriculture and keeps that industry, and ancillary businesses, alive. So the county needs to keep preserving, but get the biggest bang for the dwindling bucks.
The immediate concern is the end of a four-year cycle of accelerated purchases through bonding. In 2007, voters approved extending the Drinking Water Protection Program, funded by a quarter of 1 cent of the county sales tax. It was set to expire at the end of 2013, but the referendum extended it to 2030. It also authorized the county to borrow against future sales tax revenue to float bonds until Nov. 30, 2011.
The bonding would allow the county to save land faster than waiting for the sales tax to roll in. The estimate was that Suffolk could bond more than $300 million. But a variety of factors, including declining sales tax revenue, reduced the amount of bonds the county could actually afford to float to $209 million. Now, the bonding period is over, Suffolk still has to use sales tax revenue to pay off the bonds, and the sales tax is still soft.
So Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), the new chair of the Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee, invited the county's planning director, Sarah Lansdale, and real estate director, Pamela Greene, to brief the committee on the program last week. Hahn wants a three-month pause in passing new resolutions to start the process for land purchases. That should give planners time to look at the master list of desirable land to be purchased, prune out parcels that have been developed, and rethink priorities for the remaining land, based on the current dollars-and-cents reality. The county should also check with towns that have preservation money to spend, to eliminate duplication of effort and cooperate where possible.
The county should be careful not to back out of deals that are in contract, so as not to damage the program's reliability and possibly invite lawsuits by jilted sellers. Still, there's every reason to pause briefly, but continue resolutely, an effort that has saved roughly 60,000 acres. That record should make the county -- and the voters -- proud.