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Long IslandSuffolk

Deal keeps farmland free from development

ELIJA Foundation's 6.3-acre farmland in Huntington, used as a sustainable farm for transitioning adults with autism, sells development rights to Huntington Town and Suffolk County to preserve the agricultural space in perpetuity. (Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman)

Robyn Schneider has seen a shift in her 27-year-old autistic son since he began working on a South Huntington farm dedicated to serving children and young adults with autism spectrum disorders.

“He comes home and he’s just happy,” she said.

The Levittown-based ELIJA Foundation owns the farm where Schneider’s son, Jamie, and others with autism help with planting, growing, picking, weighing and distributing organic produce.

The 6.3-acre farmland now will be protected from future development after Huntington Town and Suffolk County agreed to purchase the development rights from the nonprofit for nearly $1 million to preserve the agricultural space in perpetuity.

“What makes this purchase special is how it helps The ELIJA Farm continue its important work supporting children with autism and their families,” Town Supervisor Frank P. Petrone said in a statement. “Not only are they using environmentally responsible practices to raise high quality, organically grown produce, they are providing valuable work experience for autistic youth and young adults.”

The town board voted unanimously Aug. 15 to purchase the agricultural development rights of two of the parcels for about $966,000, with Huntington paying for half and Suffolk County paying the other half.

The foundation initially bought 6.3 acres from the Foglia family in December 2016 — 3.6 acres of which were eligible to have their development rights sold to the town and county, said Debora Thivierge, executive director of ELIJA.

As part of the rights purchase deal, ELIJA will buy an additional 2.5 acres from the Foglias, and sell the development rights on that land to the town and county. The money will be used to pay down debt from the nonprofit’s initial land purchase, and help it pay for the new parcel, Thivierge said.

The Suffolk County Legislature voted to approve the deal in June.

Thivierge said the deal also will help protect the nonprofit from future economic pressures to sell or develop the land — as well as guarantee to the Foglia family that the land will always be farmed.

“Being able to make sure that no one ever builds anything on this property that’s not for the use of farming and community involvement was a very important part of our mission to be able to maintain that value of a family,” Thivierge said. “We also want to be sure to preserve open spaces . . . for the community at large.”

Larry Foglia and his wife, Heather Forest, continue to work as consultants on the farm since the initial sale to ELIJA, which stands for Empowering Long Island’s Journey Through Autism.

“There seems to be an intrinsic value that people get from being in open space, being in nature,” Foglia said.

The children and adults at the ELIJA Farm are trained to raise and sell produce through a community-supported agriculture program to customers in the region. For families like Schneider’s, having a place where their children can feel comfortable and experience nature is critical.

“It’s a very comfortable setting,” Schneider, of Great Neck, said. “They’re teaching real functional skills, productive skills, and it’s in a very peaceful environment.”

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