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Saving the farm on Long Island sound

(Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Kirk Johnson, NY Times: RIVERHEAD, N.Y. One of the constants of life on Long Island for the last half-century, so relentless as to seem almost a motor of history, has been the steady swallowing up the farmland. Suburban development, roaring east from New York City, changed the quality of the air and water, overwhelmed old patterns of transportation and transformed the connections between people and the land.

But now, here on the island's east end, there is a plot twist. To Ed Harbes, it is called opportunity.

Mr. Harbes, a fifth-generation Long Island farmer, is doing quite well and wants to expand his acreage, not contract. And he is not alone. Agriculture, in a part of the nation that might seem the least likely of breadbaskets, is hot.

"The business has grown in very healthy fashion," said Mr. Harbes, 45, who reinvented his farm in the late 1980's giving over the potato fields his father cultivated to sweet corn and pumpkins that he sells to weekenders and tourists from two farm stands. Chardonnay and merlot grapes for a Harbes winery were planted this spring. Three of Mr. Harbes's eight children now say they want to stay in the family business, which has taken on 10 new employees in the last few years.

Here on Long Island Sound's southeastern edge, 70 miles from Manhattan, the environmental and political implications of a strengthened farm economy are immense, conservationists, farmers and local elected officials say. The question of what land is saved, what is built upon, who profits and who loses a real estate equation that has been at the heart of the Sound's environmental trajectory for decades, if not centuries are all in play here as agriculture asserts its muscle.

But the shifting debate about the land also reflects a much deeper pattern on the Sound how fundamentally its fate, for better and for worse, has always been in the hands of local politics and passions. Although its deep waters, stretching out 110 miles from New York City to Rhode Island, have shaped much of the climate and economy of the Northeast, historians say the Sound has always been like the proverbial elephant as described by blind men understood by its parts, never by the whole.

"You've got a resource that has so many different boundaries no one ever looks at what the big picture is," said Tom Andersen, author of "This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound" (Yale University Press, 2002). "The decisions are made in isolation. That's the Sound's character."

That picture is clear in Riverhead, where the economics of farming and the intricacies of zoning have become bound up with the Sound's fate along the stretch of majestic bluffs and cliffs that form Riverhead's northern boundary on the water.

Last year, town officials drafted a long-term development plan for Riverhead that would have focused development along the Sound by far the most valuable land in town as a way of preserving farmland in the interior. It was a trade-off that many environmentalists condemned, and they threatened to push instead for a plan the farmers hated a revision of the zoning rules that would sharply reduce the value of any farmland sold for development.

The farmers fought back. Working through their trade group, the Long Island Farm Bureau, they forged an unlikely political alliance of agricultural interests, home builders and environmentalists, and they offered an alternative vision.

Their plan would preserve farmland values. Environmentalist support was rewarded by shifting development away from the Sound and by aiming to save more open space than the town's version would have. Builders would get a streamlined development process and in perhaps the most divisive element of all the ability to build higher density clustered homes at up to six units per acre within the town's agricultural zone an area that was off limits under the town plan.

Riverhead's elected town supervisor, Robert F. Kozakiewicz whose family's farm here is still run by his parents and a brother said the plan was still being debated. But he said he believes that substantial elements of the "stakeholders proposal," as the farmer-led effort is called, will probably be incorporated when the town board votes this fall.

Some critics say the farmers and their allies have hijacked Riverhead's future horse trading to get everything they want now, in protecting the agricultural industry, and everything they want in the future, in being able to sell out to a housing developer when times change or retirement looms.

"It's a scheme," said Richard L. Amper, the executive director of Pine Barrens Society, a conservation group based in nearby Manorville. "What they are producing is a shell game they're not reducing development, just moving it around."

Some farmers also oppose the plan especially the idea of building town houses near the farms and are fighting back as well.

"The whole issue here is density," said Art Binder, a horse and bison rancher who favors cowboy hats and is running for a seat on the Town Board this fall on his opposition to the idea of higher-density housing in Riverhead. "If you want to save the farmland, then you just can't develop it at six units per acre."

Both supporters and opponents agree that farming has changed. What had been a mostly wholesale business subject to the fluctuations of national and global markets, especially when potato-growing was king, has shifted to retail, specialty foods and tourism or even further to what some people here call "agri-tainment." (Mr. Harbes, for example, builds mazes in his corn fields for children to wander through.) And the higher profit margins of that shift are showing.

Between 1997 and 2001, farm cash receipts here in Suffolk County rose more than 40 percent, to $5,543 an acre, according to the most recent figures from the State Department of Agriculture and Markets. That was more than 10 times the statewide average and far higher than any other county in New York.

And much of the rest of Riverhead's economy has gone along for the ride, residents say. The dozens of small wineries that have sprung up on Long Island's North Fork attract weekend tourists who like to shop at farm stands and who are at least partly drawn by the idea of farm land itself, almost as a kind of a prop. One resident is even pushing for a rule in the master plan that would require any new homes built on farmland especially the clustered houses to look like farm buildings, the better to fool the tourists.

That agricultural strength, in turn not to mention the tentacles it extends into other aspects of the local economy, from restaurants to gas stations is what gives preservationists here hope. Land on which people are making money, they say, and in which farmers see a bright future, is simply less attractive to development. Supporters of the farmer-led stakeholder plan say they hope to permanently preserve up the 12,000 acres of farm open space, compared to only 5,000 under the town's plan. About half of Long Island's total farmland of 34,000 acres is within Riverhead's borders.

"Preservation is terrific, but a strong agriculture industry is what's keeping this area rural," said Timothy Caufield, a vice president at the Peconic Land Trust, a conservation group.

And so, by such convoluted means and tangled trails, one of the last big undeveloped coastal sections on all of the Sound may be saved not by the dictates of an environmental regulator, but through the self-interested give-and-take of the market.

"A relatively undeveloped Long Island Sound coastline is one of Riverhead's largest assets," said Eve Kaplan, an environmentalist who helped put together the stakeholder group.

Ms. Kaplan said she thinks there is an inevitable exchange for retaining the gift of an undeveloped Sound. Development pressure is immense and cannot be completely stopped. The things with highest priority are the ones that should be saved, she said.

"You have to accept that some development is inevitable, and not everyone wants to do that," she said.

Many people on both sides of the land conservation debate in Riverhead say that much of what has happened here in rethinking how and where development should occur comes down to one man, Richard Wines, 57, a soft-spoken former Wall Street investor relations consultant. Even some people who vehemently hate parts of the stakeholder proposal, like Mr. Amper at the Pine Barrens Society and farmers like Mr. Binder, have only kind words to say about Mr. Wines, even though he came up with many of the ideas.

Mr. Wines is a modest man who plays down his role. His strength, he said, is that he can talk to all the power groups. As a former businessman, he said that he understands the builders. As a small farmer, he knows that community as well. But he also donated the development rights to his farm last year to the Peconic Land Trust, which means that as long as there are lawyers to defend the claim, the 15 acres of his little spread can never be built upon. That gave him capital, he said, in talking to environmentalists.

Mr. Wines, sitting in front of his house a few feet from his potato field on a recent afternoon, said he approached the land debate here in exactly the same way he would have approached a deal-making conference on Wall Street: by making sure that everyone at the table had an economic incentive to follow through.

"A business deal is most likely to succeed if all the parties benefit," he said. "Land preservation needs to be the same way."