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The Threat To Farmland In Suffolk County

“America has been losing over 40 acres of farmland every hour to development,” said a letter from the American Farmland Trust. “This land—the most fertile soil in the world—is irreplaceable and urgently needed to grow food. It’s a national disgrace on a catastrophic scale.”
The threat to farmland in the U.S. has been mirrored in Suffolk County. But the county’s visionary Farmland Preservation Program has met this threat and been central in keeping Suffolk a top agricultural county in New York State. Not only do the farms of Suffolk produce food and other agricultural products, but are integral to Suffolk’s thriving tourism industry.
However, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society brought a lawsuit that claimed allowing “structures” on preserved farmland permitted by amendments to the program approved by the Suffolk Legislature was not legal. And last year, a state Supreme Court justice ruled in favor of the society’s lawsuit.
Justice Thomas Whelan “basically misconstrued what the county’s original intent was—to prevent the development of farmland but still allow typical and acceptable farm practices to be utilized,” says State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. The Farmland Preservation Program “didn’t freeze in a moment of time” structures that could be on a farm. Farmers who have put their land into preservation under the program, said Mr. Thiele, have been “entitled” to build sheds, barns and other structures “as long as they complied with the definition of agricultural practices. The idea was that farming is dynamic and that there would have to be changes in the future.”
It’s unfortunate that the judge didn’t understand this. His ruling is on appeal with the county having retained a law firm that has long fought for the environment: Riverhead-based Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley and Quartararo.
John V.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust comments: “If we want farmland to be farmed we have to allow farmers to do what we told them they could do when they sold their development rights. They retained the right to build structures. They never sold that right to the county. Suffolk’s Farmland Preservation Program was created to protect not only farmland, but farming. Farm operations by definition are the land, structures, improvements and practices necessary to perform agricultural production.”
Suffolk County is challenging the lawsuit and ruling which threaten Suffolk’s Farmland Preservation Program.
Conceived by County Executive John V. N. Klein in 1974, the program is based on the brilliant idea of purchase of development rights. Farmers are paid the difference between the value of their land in agriculture and the price of selling it off for development. In return, the land is kept in agriculture in perpetuity.
Suffolk’s current county executive, Steve Bellone, says: “ The findings in this lawsuit strike at the very heart of agricultural success in Suffolk County. Support structures on agricultural land have always been an essential component of agricultural production.”
Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, explains that “in this day and age, farmers can’t just go out and put a seed in the ground and watch it grow. Farming today is very sophisticated and complicated.” Greenhouses are used. Crops need to be stored in a building—“they can’t be left out in the field in the hot sun.” Farmers utilize large pieces of equipment and they “need to be sheltered.” He said, “No farmer is going to preserve their land if they can’t continue as a farm operation, and that means having the necessary infrastructure.”
Legislator Al Krupski of Cutchogue, a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer, says that the hope is that what has happened is a “temporary setback” of the county’s Farmland Preservation Program. “We want to restore confidence in this historic program.”

Filed in: Suffolk Closeup

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