During a celebration Thursday, supporters of the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund called for extending the life of the program another 20 years and expanding the scope of the CPF to include water quality programs.
The Long island Pine Barrens Society hosted the celebration, the Billion Dollar Bash, at Suffolk Theater in Riverhead to reflect on the CPF reaching a significant milestone: $1 billion in revenue since its inception in 1999. The CPF surpassed the billion-dollar mark in January, and has also achieved the preservation of more than 10,000 acres on the East End.
“We knew it was going to be a great program when we created it, but it exceeded our wildest expectations,” Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper said.
The CPF is funded through a 2% tax on real estate transactions in the five East End towns, Riverhead, Southold, Shelter Island, Southampton and East Hampton.
Amber explained that the CPF is set to expire in 2030, but under a new proposal it would be extended until 2050 and up to 20% of the revenue would be set aside for water quality, such as subsidies for homeowners to upgrade their septic systems.
Amper would like to see a provision added that allows revenue collected in one town to be spent in another. Currently, each of the five East End towns maintains its own fund, and the revenue each takes in is not transferable to another town. Amper is pitching that up to half of the 20% a town sets aside for water quality could be spent in a different town. He pointed out that the South Fork towns, where property values are higher, bring in much more CPF revenue than the North Fork towns. “That puts the North Fork at an economic disadvantage,” he said. “We can’t just protect the south of Peconic Bay.”
All of the water in the bay is susceptible to brown tide and rust tide, he pointed out, quipping, “It doesn’t know that it’s on the south or the north.”
Later, Amper brought two of the lawmakers who spearheaded the CPF legislation at the state level in 1997 and 1998, Assemblymen Fred Thiele and Steve Englebright, to the Suffolk Theater stage to address the crowd of elected officials and environmental advocates.
“This is a program … that really works, and has demonstrated its value,” Englebright said. As the Long Island Pine Barrens Preservation Act preserved the buffer between suburbia and the East End, the CPF law preserved the East End, itself, he said.
Englebright said he was proud to be among a group of people who would work until they were out of breath to pass the land on to the next generation.
Thiele joked that his “partner in crime” in the creation of the CPF was Kevin McDonald of The Nature Conservancy. He said McDonald was critical to the process and that he instilled an important lesson: “It’s about coalition building and bringing people from different parts of the community together to support something and create something of a force that just cannot be resisted.”
Thiele also honored the late Edwin “Buzz” Schwenk, an integral figure in the CPF’s creation. “Buzz sacrificed his position with the builders to become a full-time lobbyist with the Community Preservation Fund,” he said.
The beauty in the design of the CPF, according to Thiele, is that it keeps up with development pressures. “It allows conservation to keep pace with development,” he said. “When development is up, money for the fund is up. When prices for real estate go up, the amount of money we collect also goes up.”
He observed, “We spend more money for open space—we preserve more open space—in the five East End towns than, sadly, the State of New York is spending and preserving across the entire State of New York.”
One thing that they got wrong back in 1997 and 1998, when the CPF legislation was being drafted, is that the law just protected the land, Thiele said. They erroneously believed, he admitted, that preserving the land would be enough to protect community character, and that it would protect the water. But even with land preservation and up-zoning, water quality continued to decline, he noted. If people can’t fish, boat and go swimming, then they have not done their job, he said.
Senator Ken LaValle, of Port Jefferson, was also lauded for his work toward the creation of the CPF, though he was unable to attend Thursday—it was his wedding anniversary.