Our historic approach to protecting an ecosystem and the pristine water beneath, the Pine Barrens Protection Act of 1993, has withstood its share of court challenges. But budget cuts may drag this crucial law back into court.
It set out to safeguard more than 100,000 acres in the Central Pine Barrens in Suffolk County - 55,000 in the core, to be preserved undisturbed, and 47,500 in the compatible growth area, where development is allowed. The idea was to protect the land, but give owners fair compensation.
Also in 1993, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo signed a law creating the Environmental Protection Fund, to pay for acquiring the land. Without the fund, he wrote, the protection act "would be little more than a well-intentioned but unattainable idea."
But the state has regularly raided the fund to balance the budget - especially lately - and now there's no money in the fund to buy property. One owner, Eugene Smith, had a contract in hand in 2008 to sell 100 acres in the core to the state, but he has been put off again and again.
Smith believes in the protection act's goals, but he is mulling a lawsuit claiming that, without the fund, the law is an unconstitutional taking of property. As a gathering of environmentalists and politicians Friday reminded us, any weakening of the act would be tragic: We need that vast source of pristine water. So the state must protect the act that guards it, and that means standing up for the fund that gives the act life. hN