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Suffolk debates use of open space purchase funds

Environmentalists are fighting a measure before the Suffolk County Legislature Tuesday that they say pits them against farmers for dwindling open space protection funds.

A bill by Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) would require Suffolk to use half of the revenue from its dedicated fund -- supported by a quarter-cent sales tax -- to buy farmland development rights. Currently, there is no required split, and in recent years purchases of wetlands and other parcels meant to protect water quality have received the majority of funding.

Krupski said buying more development rights that will allow properties to be kept as farmland would keep more parcels on the tax rolls.

"This change would provide the most bang for our limited open space bucks," said Krupski, who sold development rights to his farm to the Town of Southold in the 1980s.

Environmentalists are expected to demonstrate Tuesday outside the Suffolk County Legislature's meeting in Riverhead, where a public hearing on the bill will be held at 2:30 p.m.

"They're arguing over crumbs instead of worrying about how to get a new revenue source for open space," said Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper.

From 2008 to 2012, Suffolk spent about 39 percent of land acquisition funds from its landmark open space program for farmland development rights of the sort Krupski wants to expand, according to legislative budget analysts.

Under a recent referendum extending the program, Suffolk can no longer borrow against future sales tax revenue, leaving only about $5 million a year for land acquisition.

"There's no sense robbing Peter to pay Paul when there's hardly any money left," said Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director Adrienne Esposito.

But Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joseph Gergela said he supported increased funding for farmland development rights.

"I honestly don't see what's wrong with making farmland a higher priority," Gergela said.

Support for Krupski's bill in the legislature is uncertain.

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), environment committee chairwoman, said the measure comes only a short time after the county instituted a new process to evaluate open space buys in order to determine the best use of the dwindling funds.

"I think we need to let the new process have a chance to take effect before we make any new changes that will have such sweeping implications for the program," Hahn said.


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