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Suffolk may overhaul landmark farmland preservation

Potato farm in Northville (June 14, 2006)

Potato farm in Northville (June 14, 2006) Photo Credit: Newsday file /Bill Davis

FOR the first time in nearly four decades, Suffolk officials are proposing to overhaul the county's landmark farmland preservation program to more clearly spell out what can and can't be done on the 9,000 acres to which the county has purchased building rights.

But Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said the revisions would allow widespread construction of "industrial greenhouses" that will undercut public support for the program.

"The public will not support the program if they want to make it into an industrial park," said Amper. "It constitutes a gift of public wealth for private purposes without public benefit." Amper said the society would file suit to overturn the proposed law, if it's enacted.

Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, called the concerns overblown, estimating that only about a 100 of the 9,000 county acres have greenhouses on them.

"Dick Amper can huff and puff all he wants," said Gergela, noting the state agriculture and markets law lists greenhouses as agricultural equipment. "This is not an open-space program, it's a working land program."

The proposal, to be aired Tuesday afternoon in a public hearing of the County Legislature in Riverhead, would bring the first sweeping changes to Suffolk's pioneering program, first adopted in 1974.

Under the current program, farmers sell development rights in return for payments that typically represent about 90 percent of the parcel's value. The farmers' property taxes also decline because the land cannot be built on. The aim was to protect the East End's scenic rural appeal and preserve 31,000 acres still in farming and their related industries.

The county's 19-member farmland committee, consisting mainly of farmers, oversees the program and rules on an ad hoc basis on what land uses were allowed.

The county began working on an overhaul about three years ago after questions arose over greenhouses built on land in the program in Manorville and Center Moriches.

The county program also attracted attention last month with the purchase by the entertainer Madonna of 24 acres in Bridgehampton for which the county had acquired development rights. It allowed her to buy the property, to add to her horse farm, at a fraction of the market value.

The proposed measure would be significantly more specific than the current law. It would ban mining, dumping, storage of hazardous waste, agricultural processing and the construction of parking lots. Other activities including the addition of greenhouses, farm stands, alternative energy systems, or the holding of special events, would require permits from the committee.

Amper said the proposed measure initially limited the space for greenhouses to 10 percent of a tract, and to 25 percent for temporary "hoop houses" that are sheathed in plastic so seedlings can sprout. But Amper complained that the final measure, while requiring special permits for greenhouses, puts no limits on them and contains no rules for hoop houses.

Gergela said there are guidelines to limit greenhouses, but it is done on a "case by case" basis.

But Lee Koppelman, Suffolk's former top planner who helped launch the program, said there should be stricter limits on land to which the county owns rights. "If farmers want a free hand, let them buy commercial property," he said. "Without standards, you're leaving the barn door wide open."

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