Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Last week, a resolution was put before the Suffolk Legislature to add 21 farms, totaling 607 acres, to the county's agricultural district.
While the annual procedural resolution passes routinely, one farm on this year's list stopped the entire process in its tracks.
The parcel is the 441-acre Sandpiper Farm in Asharoken, once owned by an heir to J.P. Morgan and now in use to train horses in jumping, dressage and fox hunting. If approved, the Sandpiper property would have to remain in agriculture for at least eight years but would be eligible, according to experts, for a tax break of 60 percent to 80 percent on its nearly $1-million property tax bill.
Leading the opposition to the parcel's designation is freshman Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), who says the tax break wasn't meant for such properties. "This kind of legislation was meant to help struggling farmers survive and keep land in agriculture . . . ," Spencer said. "This places an inequitable burden on other taxpayers and it's a loophole that goes around the legislative intent."
Spencer said loss of the tax revenue could devastate the village, where the Sandpiper property covers about half the total area.
Spencer also expressed concern that the property's owner is overstating the parcel's agricultural activity. Officials note that Asharoken bans commercial activity and won a court decision that prevents the Sandpiper property's owners from operating an equestrian school.
"There's been a lot of misinformation and inaccurate discussion," said Jon Santemma, attorney for the property owner, veterinarian Laurie Landeau.
Santemma said Landeau wants to join the agricultural district not only to ease her tax burden but to legitimatize her agricultural operation.
"This will give us the dignity and recognition of being an agricultural operation and allow us to use the property the way other farmers use their land," Santemma said.
While Landeau no longer runs an equestrian school, she trains as many as 15 horses each year on the property for a variety of equestrian events that require use of the entire tract -- but sales of horses take place off the property, Santemma said.
He likened it to "raising corn on the farm and then selling it at a local farm stand."
The farm, according to its application, produced an average of $12,600 annually in revenue over the last two years. The state requires that farms be at least seven acres and produce $10,000 in annual revenue to qualify for an assessment reduction.
The application represents the Sandpiper property's third bid to become a Suffolk agricultural district. In 2010, lawyers withdrew the application because it initially did not include records of revenues produced in past years. In 2011, their bid got approval from five of seven members of an advisory board to the county legislature; the county attorney later said a majority of the entire 11-member advisory board was needed. This year, the board vote to accept the Sandpiper application was unanimous.
The farm industry and environmentalists are watching the case intently.
Randall Parsons, finance and policy adviser to the Nature Conservancy Long Island chapter, called protection of the property one of the group's top priorities. "Keeping their land open by providing property tax relief . . . is fundamentally wise public policy," Parsons said.
Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said his group is concerned about the impact the dispute could have on the 530 farms totaling 34,000 acres now in the program in Suffolk.
"We put it through the mill and it's legitimate," Gergela said of the Sandpiper Farm's bid for agricultural status.
But county Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), deputy presiding officer, said he felt the application "caught the legislature off guard. It's not often that we've ever had to deal with fox hunts."