Last week the New York Appellate Court issued a decision that will preserve protected farmland in Suffolk County for generations to come. To understand why this decision is a victory for the environment, we first have to travel to pre-suburbanized Long Island, the 1970s, and the long ago year of 2016.
Long Island has supported a vibrant agricultural economy for centuries, but as the automobile and new highways led to a massive boom in suburban living in the mid-20th century, tens of thousands of acres of farmland were paved over. Suburbanization marched ever eastward in the decades after World War II, and many people feared that it was only a matter of time until all of the farmland in Suffolk County was developed, robbing Long Island and New York City of all of the environmental and economic benefits that the exceptional soils of eastern Long Island have always provided us.
Then, in 1974, Suffolk County established a program based on a state law to acquire the development rights for farmland before farms could be bought by developers. Simply put, the County pays a farmer the difference in price they could get by selling their farm to another farmer and by selling their farm to a developer; in exchange the farm cannot ever be developed and must be preserved in perpetuity as farmland. Since the program’s inception it has preserved more than 10,000 acres of farmland and been used as a model for similar programs in other counties and states.
But in 2016 a court ruling threatened the future, and past gains, of the program by ruling in favor of a lawsuit arguing that the County Legislature didn’t have the legal authority to let preserved farms put up new structures like barns or on-site processing facilities – even with a stringent permit process and County oversight. If the decision were upheld it would have deterred farmers from participating in the preservation program in the future, opened Suffolk County to lawsuits from farmers already participating in the program, and potentially even voided the existing preservation agreements. Thankfully the Appellate Court reversed the lower court’s decision on March 14, protecting tens of thousands of acres of Suffolk County farmland for generations to come.