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Preservationists divided in Southampton

The hand of Lee Foster, treasurer of the

The hand of Lee Foster, treasurer of the South Fork Land Foundation, grasps a handful of dirt on a parcel of land the foundation owns on Highland Terrace in Bridgehampton. (May 22, 2013) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

One of the East End's prominent conservation groups wants the town of Southampton to spend millions of dollars to preserve land it controls, a proposal that has divided the local preservation community.

Officials from the Peconic Land Trust say they will reluctantly consider selling the 14 acres on Highland Terrace in the hamlet of Bridgehampton for development if the town does not buy the development rights.

Opponents said the proposal threatens the public support behind the Community Preservation Fund, a program that has raised $842 million over 15 years and protected more than 10,000 acres of land on the East End. They do not believe the public envisioned spending money on land it believed was already protected.

"The CPF was not designed to buy land from conservation groups that are supposed to hold onto land," said local real estate broker Paul Brennan, who helped get the law passed in 1998.

John v.H. Halsey, president and founder of the Peconic Land Trust, said his group could use the money to protect 60 to 100 acres of active farmland. The farmland, he said, could then be sold to new farmers at prices below market value, with conditions to ensure the land continues to be used for agriculture.

Cosmetic magnate Ronald Lauder donated the land in the 1970s to the South Fork Land Foundation, a group that is now a Peconic Land Trust subsidiary.

Community preservation funds in the five eastern towns are funded through a 2 percent tax on real estate transactions, with an exemption on the first $250,000 of value of a home in Southampton. Money for the fund stagnated during the recession, but has roared back, reflecting the rising competition farmers and conservation groups have to protect what remains of agriculture.

At Southampton Town Hall on Friday, 11 members of the coalition that helped pass the 1998 legislation -- including farmers, conservationists and business members -- discussed whether land and development rights should be purchased from nonprofits. They also discussed the plight of the South Fork farmer.

"Fifteen years ago, our arms were all locked together marching to Albany," Assemb. Fred W. Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said Friday. "This issue has fractured the coalition a little bit."

Farmers contend that there are increasing difficulties to farming on the South Fork, including competing with second-home buyers for land that is already protected by the town. Some of that land has been packaged as part of estates.

"Farmland is moving out of town fast," said John Halsey, a Southampton farmer and distant relative of John v.H. Halsey. "There are a lot of wealthy people with large offers waiting by."

Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said the deal before the Southampton Town Board would create a dangerous precedent. "The fund was supposed to complement and supplement the work of conservation agencies," he said. "I don't think anyone contemplated they had voted to fund conservation agencies."

John v.H. Halsey explained that the group does not want to see houses there. But, he said, "any nonprofit, for whatever purpose, has to look at its assets and determine can we do more of our work by selling an asset we have?"

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