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Aug 3, 2010 5:22 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Advocates call for preservation push

Aug 3, 2010 5:22 PM

The East End’s real estate market has clawed its way out of the doldrums of economic recession in the last 10 months, carrying with it the one-time revenue juggernaut of the Community Preservation Fund, the dedicated land preservation program that has helped East End municipalities protect more than 7,000 acres of land from development since 1999.

Revenues from the CPF’s sole funding source, a 2-percent tax on real estate sales, have climbed steeply in the first half of 2010, following a slump in 2009 when the housing market ground nearly to a halt.

Now, with revenues in Southampton and East Hampton already nearly matching last year’s totals, many of the same voices that trumpeted the virtues of land preservation in the late 1990s, when the CPF program’s bylaws were drafted by the five easternmost towns in Suffolk County, are again calling for the program to be picked up with renewed gusto to take advantage of ripe opportunities and low prices.

“Right now, we have over a year of really solid revenues, especially on the South Fork, and there are incredible opportunities for the towns to grab land,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., one of the framers of the CPF program. “Prices are lower now than they have been in some time, and there are a lot of eager sellers out there. This is again the time to be really aggressive.”

But turnover in local government, economic crises that distracted from preservation efforts, and a laundry list of controversies over the use and misuse of CPF funds has some preservationists concerned that the public managers who control the preservation money have lost sight of what the program was intended to do, even if local residents haven’t lost the enthusiasm for protecting land.

In the last two years, the pace of preservation has dropped off significantly. In 2001, Southampton Town purchased 560 acres of land with CPF money. In 2009, the town purchased just 42 acres. Likewise, East Hampton Town preserved 363 acres in 2001, but just 30 acres in 2009.

At the same time, some local governments were justifying the use of larger and larger chunks of CPF revenue for uses other than land preservation. Tax abatement, loosely identified maintenance work on preserved land, and—in the most glaring case of misused funds—improper loans to cash-strapped municipal accounts for funding day-to-day government operations, which landed East Hampton Town’s budget officer in handcuffs.

Environmental watchdogs, including Richard Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, say the trend has to be reversed immediately, and the emphasis must be put back on purchasing large chunks of land.

“There’s no institutional memory on the South Fork, and the current crop of politicians came to look at the CPF as a cash cow to be used for all purposes,” Mr. Amper said recently. “That’s just against the law. It may seem like a bizarre request, but can we please use the money, which people voted for using to buy land, to buy land, please?”

Since it was created by public referendum in 1999, the CPF has raised some $650 million for land preservation. In 2007, voters overwhelmingly supported extending the program another 10 years, through 2025, giving towns even more anticipated revenues to borrow against. The flood of revenue has been used to preserve about 7,000 acres of open space in the five East End towns.

Still, the totals are a fraction of the goals set by preservationists in the 1990s, who foresaw preserving 35,000 acres of land from development—and preservationists say it’s time to remind governments that the money is there and the land still needs to be bought.

“A lot of the original players are gone, and those who have replaced them need to be made aware of what was intended by the public,” said Kevin McDonald, a preservation advocate for the Nature Conservancy. “They need to be walked through the history of how the CPF happened, and why it happened.”

The reasons for the drop-off in purchases in the last two years were many. Primarily, the stalled economy and sluggish real estate sales meant that towns had much less cash available to them in 2009 than they had become accustomed to. Southampton Town, for example, saw its CPF revenues drop from a high of more than $53 million in 2007 to $24 million in 2009, the lowest level since 2002.

Substantial chunks of that—about $8 million annually in Southampton—is dedicated to debt service on tens of millions borrowed against future revenues. Southampton has borrowed nearly $100 million; East Hampton, $50 million.

As the economy collapsed, East Hampton and Southampton also both discovered disastrous accounting mistakes that appeared to result in tens of millions of missing dollars—in East Hampton’s case, a deficit that has ballooned to more than $30 million. Preservation efforts took a back seat.

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We know why it happened and we know why it's not as popular as it was McGINTEE!!!! Where were you guys (Amper, McDonald) when all of this was going on? You guys are just slimey politicos.
By independent observer (34), east hampton on Aug 4, 10 10:16 PM