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Fight or Lose — Recent Letter to the Editor of the Southampton Press and East Hampton Press

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February 15, 2018

By John v.H. Halsey

The following Letter to the Editor appeared in the East Hampton Press (January 31, 2018) and Southampton Press, Western Edition (February 8, 2018)

We wholeheartedly agree with The Press’s editorial from December 7, 2017 [“Talk It Out”]. It is time for those who want farming in our future to speak out. If we want farming in our future, we must fight for it now or lose it.

Farmers have many challenges, but when a State Supreme Court justice declared in September 2016 that farmers cannot have the structures and improvements on protected farmland that they need to farm, I felt that I had entered the Theater of the Absurd.

In the 1970s, when land values were rapidly increasing and development was on the rise, most of our farms on the East End of Long Island were producing potatoes and cauliflower. Farms that had been handed down generation after generation were sold to pay federal estate taxes. Many farmers who survived began to diversify from potatoes to more profitable crops.

You see, agriculture is dynamic and ever-changing. Necessity is the mother of invention. So, in 1974, farmers and Suffolk County invented the first farmland preservation program in the country to purchase development rights to not only preserve invaluable agricultural soils but also to ensure the future of farming, which is so important to our local economy. The farmers continued to own their land but relinquished the right for the land to be developed into residential subdivisions.

This was the ultimate win-win solution. When farmers sold their development rights, they retained the right to construct the agricultural structures and improvements necessary to farm. No farmer would sell the right to have a barn, fencing or an irrigation pump. Indeed, the development rights documents clearly articulate this retained right, as well as a process to permit structures for agricultural purposes.

Imagine how shocked farmers were when a court decision eliminated their retained rights to have agricultural structuresrights exercised since they sold their development rights beginning in 1977. Essentially, the court converted the first farmland preservation program in the country into an open space program, asserting that protected farmland properties should remain “in the state they were in at the time of the purchase of the development rights by the county.”

The call for a public referendum is a false one—and is nothing more than a red herring. The real issue is that the court decision takes away rights and benefits that farmers have always had and does so without compensation.

If we want farming in our future, the court decision must be overturned, and state legislation must be passed to prevent this from happening again. It is time for those who want farming in our future to speak out.

Visit our Public Policy page for more information, along with our recent blog post: Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program Challenged