Levy, critics debate land preservation

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. (July 6, 2011)

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. (July 6, 2011) (Credit: James Carbone)

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy earlier this month touted his record of preserving open space and farmland at a press event with the waters of Gould's Pond in Lake Grove as a photo-op backdrop.

Levy trumpeted that over five decades, Suffolk has saved more than 58,000 acres -- the same as the landmass of all of Huntington Town -- and said half of the $800-million investment was made during his administration.

A day later, however, Levy vetoed legislation that would take the first step toward saving a large, 425-acre tract in East Quogue.

"It's kind of hypocritical to hold a press conference one day and issue a veto the next," said Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), the measure's sponsor. He noted that Southampton Town is willing to put up half the money for any purchase, and that Suffolk already is in contract to buy 150 adjacent acres, known as the Links, which would create a preserve of nearly 600 acres. Schneiderman said he would press for an override.

Levy, a Republican, defended his veto: "It's been determined that up to 70 percent of this parcel, including all the acreage . . . within the pine barrens core and the special groundwater protection area, can be preserved forever through clustering [of development] . . . at no cost to the taxpayers."

The trade-off is to allow construction of 82 new houses. Levy said Suffolk could protect 300 acres and "not expend a single dime" rather than be socked for $15 million to $30 million to save an extra 125 acres. "Think of how many other pine barrens properties we could purchase," he said.

Levy maintained that county planners had cautioned that the purchase would not be a wise investment.

"I approve 90 percent of the planning resolutions that come before me," Levy said, "but some, like this one, are turkeys . . . Being an advocate for open space does not mean going after nonsensitive land with a blank check."

But Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, called Levy "a lot better on rhetoric than land preservation." Amper said Levy's stand on clustering would end up fragmenting the large parcel and turning . . . "the Suffolk landscape into Swiss cheese."

Backers say Schneiderman's measure only authorizes planning steps and does not commit the county to buy the tract. If a deal with the owners is struck, it goes to the county Legislature for another vote.

Yet Levy said he still hopes to prevail because most lawmakers were unaware that all the crucial watershed would be preserved without purchase.

"The myth among lawmakers is that planning . . . is just pro forma and it does not lock you in," he said. "But we are required to make a fair market offer and [then] it's out of our hands. This is the critical juncture to decide whether we want the property."