Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown is hiring an outside law firm for nearly $100,000 to appeal a court ruling barring farmers from putting barns, farm stands or other structures on tracts for which the county has bought building rights in its farmland preservation program.
Brown got the authority to retain the environmental law firm of Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin & Quartararo of Riverhead on Dec. 21 in a unanimous vote of a three-member executive-legislative waiver committee.
County Executive Steve Bellone’s office sought the waiver, according to documents filed with the committee, because “the ramifications . . . will undoubtedly be devastating unless the decision is reversed.” While the county attorney’s office “is capable of handling appeals,” it sought an outside firm for its expertise, and because of the issue’s “great importance to the county,” and the need for the appeal to be expedited.
Documents disclosed the law firm will charge $300 an hour and will fully brief and handle the case at the appellate division for $52,500 plus disbursements. The firm also agreed to take the case to the state’s high court, the Court of Appeals, if necessary, for $42,000 more, plus expenses.
But Paul Sabatino, an attorney for the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which brought the lawsuit, said “The county’s money would be better spent if it hired magician Harry Houdini to escape from the ironclad decision” of Justice Thomas Whelan.
In September, Whelan threw out 2010 and 2013 amendments to the farmland program, which allowed farmers to get special-use permits and hardship exemptions for greenhouses, barns, fencing, irrigation systems and other structures on land to which the county had bought development rights. Whelan said such development constituted “a substantial intrusion upon the public’s rights to prohibit development . . . ”
In an effort to circumvent the ruling, Bellone has proposed a local law to drop the process under which waivers and hardship exemptions were granted before Whelan’s ruling, and let farmers erect limited farm-related structures without permits.
Since 1974, Suffolk has spent $260.8 million to preserve 10,636 of the county’s 39,000 farm acres.
Pine Barrens Society officials say the court fight erodes public support for preservation efforts and could kill the program. “This is just another example of politicians wasting the public’s money to support the farm lobby,” said Richard Amper, the society’s executive director.
Farmers say the farmland program has to be flexible enough so the local agricultural industry can survive financially. Robert Carpenter, the Long Island Farm Bureau’s administrative director, said Whelan’s decision has “thrown the program into chaos,” but Bellone has taken a ”wise step by” hiring the law firm, which also represents the bureau.