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Politics and land preservation in Nassau County

This roughly one-acre property, on the east side

This roughly one-acre property, on the east side of Island Channel Road, south of Bayview Street in Seaford, is one of a number of open spaces purchased by Nassau County. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

The notion of preserving open space is akin to joining mom in the kitchen for freshly baked cookies: It’s almost irresistible.

And so it was that Nassau residents readily agreed, in 2004 and 2006, to back the county’s environmental bond acts, landmark legislation that saved some working farms and multiple swatches of verdant, mostly North Shore land.

The idea was to use public money — via bonds, which residents still are paying off — to keep some of Nassau’s open land from being developed, in an effort to protect environmentally sensitive assets, including groundwater. And then to open up that land for public enjoyment.

The program, viewed more than a decade later, ended up being wildly successful on the high-minded preservation and environmental protection fronts.

But a deep dive by Newsday reporter Paul LaRocco into the $100 million in acquisitions made between 2006 and 2012 shakes loose that high mindedness — getting to the down and dirty of some deals done under the act.

As it turns out, almost $30 million apportioned under the act was paid to people with ties to county politics or those involved in the process of selecting which parcels would be considered for acquisition — or both.

The report makes for a fascinating read because it is so rich in detail, including assertions from multiple officials and others involved in the process who deny or say they had no idea that politics, the appearance of favoritism — or both — played any role in the acquisitions.

Read the series, please, for more on how a quarter of all acquisitions under the act ended up going to four- or five-figure political campaign contributors to two county executives, one Democrat and one Republican; and to county patronage employees and major backers of groups that backed the referendum and influenced site recommendations.

Many on the advisory panel making acquisition recommendations told LaRocco that such information never was disclosed to them.

And then there’s the issue of public access to land acquired six to 12 years ago under the act. In 2011, Nassau came up with a proposal to open up the parcels to public access.

But it went nowhere, and, as Newsday reports, many still have no prominent signage and some are completely inaccessible.

On Friday, County Executive Laura Curran called the overall acquisition program a success. “Everyone recognized its need,” she said in an interview.

In answering questions, she also addressed some differences between the way land sales and other county-related business is handled now, in the wake of multiple corruption-related investigations and convictions — as opposed to more than a decade ago when the county sought to buy open land.

“These days, you can never have enough transparency and disclosure,” she said.

As for public access, Curran said, the administration will take a look at parcels — but given the county’s ongoing financial crisis, she can make no promises.

“We do need to look at how we can improve access,” she said. “We also have serious financial straits at this point and we have to look at it through that prism.”

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