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Jun 23, 2008 11:42 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

At 10 years, CPF more successful than ever imagined

Jun 23, 2008 11:42 AM

Reflecting on the time before the summer of 1998, Kevin McDonald said he can hardly believe how the East End’s landscape has changed—or rather, how it has not.

Mr. McDonald, a Hampton Bays resident and the director of public lands at the Nature Conservancy, teamed with Robert DeLuca, the president of the Bridgehampton environmental organization then known as the Group for the South Fork (now Group for the East End), to help spearhead the grassroots effort supporting the creation of the CPF. He says no one could have ever imagined that on June 22, 1998, when Governor George E. Pataki came to a Bridgehampton farm field for a public bill-signing ceremony, the Community Preservation Fund would be as successful as it is today.

According to the press release Gov. Pataki’s office issued after the signing of the bill, the CPF was expected to generate what was then considered the huge sum of $10 million a year. But thanks in large part to an explosion in the real estate market, the CPF easily surpassed those projections. As of today, the funds of the five participating East End towns have accumulated five times that original estimate, or about $500 million, and have paid for the preservation of 10,000 acres of land across the East End.

“It’s been an overwhelming success,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., one of the original architects of the CPF legislation. “It has surpassed our wildest dreams.”

Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman was East Hampton Town supervisor from 1999 to 2003 when the revenues started to pour in. “The thing that surprised us all was the amount of money it started to generate,” he said. Mr. Schneiderman called it “an exciting time” in which the towns were able to come to the negotiating table with just as much money as developers.

And while there is uniform praise for the CPF among East End officials, now that it has turned into a veritable cash cow, some are calling for tighter oversight of the revenue it provides the towns to ensure that the money is strictly used for for land preservation and its associated costs. Still others suggest that towns must exercise stricter control over what properties they earmark for purchases through the fund.

Concerns over the possible misuse of CPF funds came to a boil earlier this year when it was disclosed that East Hampton Town Supervisor William McGintee had borrowed extensively from the fund to help plug a budget shortfall in 2007. Later, Mr. McGintee found himself in even more political hot water when it was revealed he had used CPF money to pay salaries and other costs that may have not met the criteria for use of CPF money.

The office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli—who, as an assemblyman, co-sponsored the CPF legislation with Mr. Thiele—is now auditing the five towns to make sure they are fulfilling their obligations under the law.

While the CPF is enduring something of a rough patch, Mr. McDonald maintained that it is a small miracle—one requiring the cooperation of many disparate parties—that the legislation was ever passed.

A Tough Beginning

An original version of law, which would have applied to East Hampton Town only, was vetoed by Gov. Pataki in 1997. As part of his veto message, the governor said the bill needed to have broader appeal.

For proponents who looked ahead and saw their precious East End being gobbled up by overdevelopment, driving such a bill through both houses in Albany and onto the governor’s desk would be no easy task.

The Goliath standing in the way, according to Mr. Thiele, was the collective mindset of real estate brokers, builders, and business owners who believed the law would adversely affect their bottom lines.

“There wasn’t as much resistance on the local level,” Mr. Thiele said. “But statewide it was pretty tough.” He credits a grassroots effort for convincing those in opposition that, essentially, a rising tide would lift all boats.

Paul Brennan, a real estate broker with Sotheby’s International in Bridgehampton, was one of the foot soldiers in the trenches with Mr. McDonald and Mr. Thiele and was crucial in 
pulling real estate brokers into the preservation camp. “At first there was this knee-jerk reaction that less availability of property would hurt sales,” Mr. Brennan said. “What we had to convince them of was that keeping the character of the community, preventing it from becoming like any ordinary place, would only enhance the value of all other properties.”

But, according to Mr. McDonald, if anyone deserves credit for breaking through the opposition of the business community, it was lifelong Southampton resident Edwin “Buzz” Schwenk.

At the time, Mr. Schwenk was the executive director of the New York Builders Institute, a powerful bloc opposed to the CPF with significant influence in Albany. Though Mr. Schwenk and Mr. McDonald often butted heads on the issues, when it came down to preserving the East End they had known growing up, they were of one voice.

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