To most people, farmland preservation means protecting farms from development and preserving the soil, open space, and those wonderful bucolic vistas. That was the basis of Suffolk County’s 1974 law that established the program and part of a 1999 public referendum approved by Suffolk voters to use part of a quarter-cent sales tax to buy the development rights to farms and save them for future generations.
The program has been a fabulous success, preserving 10,000 acres of farmland. But the county, pressured by farmers, cracked open the development door.
First, it allowed farmstands. That was understandable. Then the Suffolk legislature passed laws in 2010 and 2013 that allowed farmers to get exemptions to build greenhouses, wedding facilities, solar farms and other structures — on land for which they had accepted public money for their promise not to build anything. Those laws were recently and rightly thrown out in state Supreme Court. But Suffolk is considering an appeal. That is a profoundly bad idea.
Judge Thomas Whelan’s ruling was clear. The exemptions violate the public’s right to prohibit development. He also noted that the terms of the original program can only be altered by public referendum, not by legislative action. If that sounds familiar, yes, Suffolk has been down that road before. The county has twice tried to plug budget holes by using funds collected via public referendum for other purposes, moves rejected in court on the grounds that anything set up by public referendum can only be changed by public referendum. Farmers say the nature of farming is changing, and that’s true. Ornamentals, sod, agritourism and solar arrays are ever-larger pieces of the pie, dwarfing the growing of fruits and vegetables. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to bypass a public referendum.
Indeed, some farmers approached this problem the right way, by selling their development rights except for a few acres they might want to build on in the future.
But a decision to appeal also would be wrongheaded for a county government whose actions continue to erode the public’s trust in it. That’s especially problematic now, when Suffolk is trying to convince people it can be trusted in its ambitious plan to reduce the nitrogen pollution that is fouling Long Island’s waters.
The centerpiece of the plan is a public referendum asking voters to institute a fee on water usage to help thousands of homeowners replace failing cesspools and septic systems, the major contributors by far to nitrogen pollution in Suffolk. County officials want to put that on the ballot next November. But their presentation of the plan last spring drew skepticism from state lawmakers, whose approval is needed. They questioned whether the money raised truly will be in a proverbial lockbox, unable to be used for other purposes. Trying to skirt the referendum in the farmland preservation program does not inspire confidence.
Long Island voters time and again have made clear their desire to protect open space, farmland and water quality. Suffolk County should be just as unequivocal in its commitment.
— The editorial board