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Long Island

Land preservation up, but pace falls short

Open space and farmland preservation on Long Island increased in the past two years, but not fast enough to meet conservationists' goal set years ago to protect 35,000 acres from development before the Island is built out.

Local governments protected more than 1,700 acres last year and 967 acres in 2010. The growth comes after preservation declines in 2008 and 2009 related to the recession and a lack of large tracts of available land, according to a report issued last week by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

In 2007, before the recession, 2,000 acres were preserved, the largest amount set aside thus far.

"The period of decline has stopped and changed direction, but the rate of land purchased is not sufficient to get us to the goal, by a long shot," society executive director Richard Amper said last week.

The Nature Conservancy of Long Island and 100 environmental, civic and business groups in 2006 set a goal to protect 25,000 acres of open space and 10,000 acres of farmland by 2020, the year they estimated every acre of Long Island would be designated for either development or preservation.

"Many of us believe this is a long-term investment in the viability -- economically and environmentally -- of the region," Kevin McDonald, public policy and funding director at Nature Conservancy, said of local land preservation efforts.

With development slowed by the recession, the Pine Barrens Society estimates build-out to occur in 2025. Even with the delay, it's estimated local towns and counties will preserve a total of about 17,000 acres by 2025, Amper said.

Last year, Suffolk County and the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead, Southampton, Southold, East Hampton and Shelter Island bought a total of 1,703 acres, up from 1,134 the year before.

Many East End towns took advantage of low real estate prices to buy land using a 2 percent real estate tax collected through the Community Preservation Fund for such conservation efforts.

In January, Southampton bought a 20-acre parcel in Riverside for $175,000 by using the fund and a newly passed resolution allowing the town to borrow against future revenue to scoop up property while prices are cheaper.

But Amper worries the numbers of acres preserved will not be sustained. "They are not expected to do that well in the next two years," he said.

The Drinking Water Protection Program in Suffolk County is funded through a .25 percent sales tax. Almost a third of proceeds go toward buying open space, farmland and active recreation, county spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said. The remaining money collected goes to water quality, sewer taxpayer and property tax protection.

In the past the county could borrow against future tax revenue, but a referendum extending the program changed the regulation as of November so that only money actually raised could be used to purchase land for preservation.

Suffolk County is under contract to buy nearly 840 acres in 2012. Last year, the county purchased 864 acres to protect from development. The goal is to buy as much "as funding allows," Baird-Streeter said.

New York State, Nassau County and Oyster Bay Town protected less land in 2011 than the previous year. Hempstead, North Hempstead, Babylon, Smithtown and Islip Town recorded no preservation activity, according to the report.

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