July 25, 2008

Commentary: For Long Island, Saving Land is an Economic Solution

By Richard Amper

What would happen if Long Island lost its No. 1 industry: tourism?

And what if Suffolk, the largest agriculture-producing county in New York, simultaneously became no longer viable? And if fishing dried up and the lucrative second-home industry disappeared? Surely, government would prevent this. But it isn't.

That's the concern contained in a report released last month by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. The white paper warns of dire economic and environmental consequences if goals for the preservation of open space and farmland aren't met. Government, business and community leaders have agreed that half of the Island's remaining 70,000 acres must be saved before the final build-out of Long Island, projected by planners for 2015.

The 25,000 acres of open space targeted for preservation will help protect drinking water and habitat, and will ensure Long Island's quality of life. It will also protect the Island's $4.7 billion tourism industry. The 10,000 acres of farmland won't just guarantee a safe, fresh food supply, it will ensure that there are enough customers for the farm suppliers, essential to agriculture's survival.

Then, there's the record-high taxes caused by overdevelopment. Long Islanders are paying two-and-a-half times the national average. That's because the cost of government services exceeds the tax revenues collected when new residential development sprawls across the landscape. Sure, the land stays on the tax rolls, but the development costs each of us more money to pay for new schools, new roads, police protection and on and on.

This, in turn, drives away our young people. The Long Island Index reports that they're leaving Long Island at five times the national average. This bright, educated workforce is essential to filling the jobs business and industry need to keep Long Island commerce competitive. So, preservation of open space isn't just aesthetically pleasing; it helps control taxes. Why? Because deer don't go to school!

Absent preservation now, Long Island's economy will be undermined at least as much as our environment. Our new white paper recommends an independent study of the economic and environmental repercussions if the preservation goals are not achieved, not one bought and paid for by the development-at-any-cost crowd. Too often, we hear our politicians say that the environment is a nice little thing if only we could afford it. The fact is that Long Island can't afford not to preserve enough open space and farmland to protect our economy as well as our environment.

Alas, the report, "Still on Course for Failure," points out that state, county and town governments are buying land at a rate likely to save only half the land that Long Island leaders have agreed is necessary. So what has to change?

First, New York must increase its contribution to land preservation on Long Island. Unlike other regions, Long Islanders have approved more preservation dollars than 45 of the nation's 50 states and land purchases here cannot be put off. Land not secured now will be lost forever to development.

Next, Nassau and Suffolk must increase their property acquisition rates. It's not enough to be satisfied by today's pace when the numbers show we must double land purchases or face serious consequences.

Finally, East End towns must borrow today from anticipated Community Preservation Fund revenues - the highly successful real estate transfer fee. Land isn't going to get cheaper and they're not making any more of it.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "On Long Island, our economy is our environment and our environment is our economy."

We'd better heed his sage understanding by redoubling our preservation efforts immediately.

Richard Amper is executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Originally published by Richard Amper.

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