On Long Island’s East End, local farms sometimes struggle to survive on farming alone. Instead, farmers must incorporate other methods, such as on-farm wine-tasting rooms, greenhouses, commercial solar farms, solar warehouses, and other structures to bolster Long Island’s East End farming economy. Understanding this, Suffolk County has allowed farmers who give up their development rights (that is, agree to preserve the land) to use preservation funds to build these structures on their properties, allowing them to survive and even thrive. However, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whalen does not agree. In a recent ruling, he deemed the 2010 and 2013 amendments to the 1970’s farmland preservation laws to be “null and void” and “of no further effect”.
This ruling takes away the progress made by the Suffolk County Legislature to spend millions in buying “development rights” on the East End’s farmland. The farmland committee and farmland preservation program is funded through a portion of the .25% sales tax in the county that goes towards protecting drinking water.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone opposed the ruling, stating that Justice Whalen’s actions will “gut the farmland preservation program” by limiting the access to utilities and structures farmers need to run and operate a successful and financially sustainable farm. To date, Suffolk County has preserved nearly 20,000 acres of farmland between the $260.8 million spent by the county, and efforts from smaller towns and non-profits, with a goal to preserve 30,000 acres of farmland in Long Island’s East End.
Sufflok County Legislature, Al Krupski believes that the court did not take into full account how much the modern farmer is suffering, especially with the growth of mega-commercial farming taking over the Midwest. He said in response to the ruling that “agriculture changes over time… if you don’t let it change, you’re going to be importing more and more food.” The ruling removes permitting rights, and worse, hardship exemptions, that some farmers have come to rely on to keep their doors open.
Those who are in favor of the ruling state that the 2010 and 2013 amendments go “beyond the intent of the original land preservation referendum”, calling the proposed developments illegal and an intrusion to public rights. In agreement with the ruling are farm owner Russ McCall, who states that commercial development would turn farmland into “cities”, and the Pine Barrens Society Executive Director, Dick Amper, who executed the original suit leading to the state court ruling.
Amper made several claims in regards to suits he filed as early as 2010, stating that the amendments approved by the county were an “illegal gift of public funds for private purposes and a waste of public money…attempting to formalize a growing practice of allowing farm owners to install structure, including greenhouses, covering up to 25 percent of the land.”
Local community members adamantly voiced opposition to the ruling, arguing that it will be catastrophic for farm owners on Long Island. Justice Whalen’s decision ultimately redefines the farmland protection program as an open space program and equates agricultural structures, including greenhouses and produce storage barns, with residential developments. The further implications of Purchase of Development Rights programs throughout New York State are still unclear.