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Halsey: Save East End land for farming, while we still can

Fence on a farm.

Fence on a farm. Photo Credit: iStock

It's time to set the record straight about the important role private organizations can play in conserving what we know and love on Long Island.

Communities have a right to control their destiny and resources -- including their soil, drinking water and the character of their community -- and to maintain a healthy respect for private property rights. Indeed, it is the purpose of the highly acclaimed Community Preservation Fund to preserve community character, and saving farmland is its highest priority.

But protected farmland, which the fund has spent millions of dollars to conserve, is becoming increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible to farmers on the South Fork.

That's why the Peconic Land Trust is trying to acquire more farmland for farming through the sale of development rights on 14 acres in Bridgehampton, which were generously given to the South Fork Land Foundation in 1978 by businessman and philanthropist Ronald Lauder. The property was donated without restrictions and has all of its development rights. This enabled Lauder to realize the highest charitable gift at the time, but it has also given the South Fork Land Foundation an incredible asset to further its public benefit purpose.

Because these acres are excellent farmland and the parcel's development rights remain intact, the property is on the Town of Southampton's 2011 Community Preservation Fund's priority list. That's also why the South Fork Land Foundation has no intention of selling the 14 acres to a developer if the town chooses not to purchase the development rights.

We are fighting to retain farmland as a source of fresh, local food in Southampton and, so far, it is a losing battle. In addition to the town, Suffolk County has a long history of farmland protection, going back to the creation of its landmark development rights purchase program in the 1970s, but we are now witnessing the undoing of these efforts on the South Fork.

Nonfarmers are buying protected land as amenities to adjacent development, equestrian uses and other purposes. Though they cannot develop it, they are still paying exorbitant prices. Because they can afford to pay much more than farmers, protected farmland on the South Fork is now worth at least $100,000 an acre. This has huge inheritance tax consequences for land-rich, cash-poor farmland owners. And it puts this land well beyond the reach of most new and established farmers who want to acquire farmland to grow food.

If we want a source of local food on Long Island for generations to come, we need to fully understand the challenges we face, as well as the important roles that both the public sector and private conservation organizations can play to make it a reality. The Farmland Policy Advisory Committee recently organized in Southampton Town by Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) is a step in the right direction. When the work of this committee is completed, the Southampton Town Board will decide how to work with its nonprofit conservation partners in the future, and more important, how to assure that protected farmland is actually farmed.

By using the proceeds from the sale of development rights on the South Fork Land Foundation's 14 acres, we expect to be able to put 60 to 100 acres of protected farmland back into food production. While this is but a drop in the bucket, it's nonetheless an important step toward assuring the future of local food, a critical component of our local economy, not to mention the character of our communities, the purpose of the Community Preservation Fund. As conservation organizations, our missions are essentially the same -- to conserve Long Island's working farms, natural lands and heritage for our communities now and in the future.

John v.H. Halsey, a 12th generation Long Islander, is the founder of the Peconic Land Trust and has served as its president for 30 years. He also serves on the board of the South Fork Land Foundation.