For this year’s Nature Conservancy Long Island Summer Benefit, the evening will commemorate a huge milestone in preserving nature and communities on Long Island: the 20th anniversary of the Community Preservation Fund.
We caught up with The Nature Conservancy’s Kevin McDonald, a member of the Conservancy’s policy team, to learn about the soiree on Saturday, June 29, the importance of the Fund, and more.
How long have you been with the Nature Conservancy?
KMD: I’ve been with the Conservancy for 15 years and before that I was with Group for the East End where I worked on the Community Preservation Fund campaign.
But it was a campaign that the Conservancy had been heavily invested in and a number of other organizations. Also, part of the celebration we’re having on Saturday is something as extraordinary as securing passing a job and then getting approval of the Community Preservation Fund – the coming together of a number of different groups and different interests to work jointly for that success. And that’s what we’re celebrating on Saturday – legislative leadership, the community leadership, the leadership of different environmental organizations jointly working together for a common cause and the race and the result of that was ultimately the public vote on a ballot measure that established a Community Preservation Fund that has been responsible for protecting more than 10,000 acres of significant open space, parklands, farmlands, waterfront access, trails, active park experiences that residents enjoy every day when they’re here. And in some cases, may take it for granted because somebody showing up for the first time this weekend that just passed will go, “That’s a nice little park, nice little beach,” and not know the history behind how it happened.
But a lot of the folks that were around 20 years ago when this campaign was in earnest, at the time, they know the story, and this is a celebration of their effort as well. The other part of the story is that there’s a whole bunch of other people that worked on the campaign and for different reasons have passed on to the next side. They knew even at the time that they were doing something that had little to do about them in order to protect the place they loved and the legacy that they were making sure that others got to experience.
Could you speak a bit about the Community Preservation Fund’s importance to the East End?
KMD: In the 70s 80s and 90s, the development boom that was consuming most of Long Island was still considerably impactful to the East End, although it hadn’t quite gotten as developed as some other areas, but it was not uncommon for large properties of land to be the subject of a major subdivision in any of the five Eastern towns. 2,000 acres, 1,500 acres of land every year was getting subdividing and carved up.
The response at the time was that’s just the marketplace building what people want. A bunch of us were like, well, how do you represent the public’s interest if you only leave all the land to the marketplace? We said we need a fund that can robustly represent the public’s interest. This was modeled after an initiative that had been pioneered on Nantucket and expanded to Martha’s Vineyard. That happened in the early 80s in those places and we talked about it here, but it took 14 years to get it passed out of the state legislature.
It had been resisted strongly by the New York State builders, the Long Island builders, the Long Island Board of Realtors, and they thought they knew better and they tried to defeat it. In Albany, they did successfully for 14 years and it finally passed and when the campaign was being waged, it was a fairly vigorous campaign on both sides. When it was over, the public voted for it, nearly 70 percent and in some cases higher than 75 percent. And then a year later, it was a resounding success and has been every year since. Communities, sacred places, significant park opportunities were created and rather than just have the marketplace consume the entire South Fork, it was the public’s interest in protecting land that was important for the character of the community and park and trail experiences and access to waterfront and access to ponds, etc. that weren’t going to happen have. The towns were all able to match money from the state and the county to facilitate the acquisition of a number of really significant parcels of land over the last 20 years that represent the mosaic publicly protected properties from Montauk, all the way to Speonk, and Riverhead, and Orient. That’s where a lot of people will be recreating on a weekend like we just experienced. It was a pretty superb effort and one with great results.
Reflecting back on the Fund’s 20 years, what would you say are some of the major accomplishments?
KMD: Some of the most significant things were when communities were doing community planning, and they were deciding what was to happen to the downtown business district or what was to happen in parts of the community that were the subject of community plans, when the community said we would love to have this property protected or love a park here, or this would be a great place for a bike path to allow people in the community to get to downtown without riding on roads. There was a fund created that actually enabled that to happen. The Community Preservation Fund, for example, was the Fund that was used to acquire a hamlet park in Hampton Bays that does exactly what I just described. The public then had a Fund that could be used to actually implement the vision for the type of community that they wanted to have. In other parts of Southampton, for instance, or even East Hampton, there was an important farmland area that people thought it was important to invest in or a local place to stop at and get fresh picked corn on the way back from the beach, these places, if they weren’t protected, there was no guarantee that they were going to be protected or that they would always be available. When over the last 20 years, when the towns of Southampton and East Hampton or another areas of the East End decided to acquire the development right to some of those farms, they assured that in the future, the public would have the opportunity to always see that farm field open and protected and whatever the farmer was growing, if they liked it, they could stop by at the farmstand and buy it.
Those are two real simple examples. And then the other thing that was always important is that the Community Preservation Fund, when it was first created, it was only supposed to last ten years. Then the success of it was so remarkable that the strategy was we should extend this so that the towns can think more long term about how they would acquire land over 20 to 30 years. In some cases, buy it now and even finance, pay for it into the future because if you didn’t buy the land that was still protected, you wouldn’t have the opportunity later in the future. So the public had to vote to extend it. Each time it was being extended. Every time the public voted to extend the Community Preservation Fund, the plurality of the votes increased. Just in 2016, the public voted to extend the Community Preservation Fund all the way to 2050 and to allow a portion of the funds to be used to help improve water quality across the five East End towns and that was approved with a plurality approaching 80 percent. It was a resoundingly successful campaign.
If you were running for office or you were in office, the conclusion you should draw is protecting land and improving water quality got 80 percent of the public’s approval. There aren’t too many public officials that get the plurality numbers in the 80s. So open space and protecting it and improving water quality, in some cases, are more popular than the people that are otherwise running for office. The reason I can repeat this with such certainty is I was actually told that by one or two elected officials So, they were like, okay, we get it, protecting the environment, improving water quality is more important than us, we got it. Those are important outcomes and probably the most important outcome was when we first did this, it was a gigantically big deal. Today, it is so normal, and it is so easy to accept. Yes, the Town of Southampton and East Hampton and these other East End towns all have this Fund. They use it when they want to acquire an important area that warrants protection. It’s as common as buying a street sweeper, putting in a traffic light and changing park benches.
All the towns have different funds. They’re operated by each of the town boards, and Southampton and East Hampton are by far the most richly funded. All the towns have that opportunity to decide what areas matter the most, how they can protect that with their own funds, and how they can use their funds and match them with county and state money to develop a strategic plan for the protection of the most significant lands that remain still in their towns, knowing full well that the public endorses that strategy and rewards them for doing it.
Does the Fund set goals for the future?
KMD: Well, those are set by the town board every year and the town. So, for instance, in Southold farmland protection is a high priority. East Hampton and Southampton have the luxury of having enough funding where they could still do both. Right now a major priority of the Fund is to invest in the modernization of wastewater technology – so that nitrogen loading and groundwater and surface water is reduced. That’s a new burden or a new challenge that the Fund has to manage for. But many communities, certainly East Hampton and Southampton, can do it all because they just have a powerfully funded Community Preservation Fund, which is obviously all the real estate activities in the towns and some towns are more wealthy than others.
The East End of Long Island is made up of land and water and protecting both of them and improving both of them is at the essence of the protection strategy for the East End.
It’ll be an opportunity for the future generations to thank the folks that worked on the campaign, that passed the Community Preservation Fund, and now the trustees of that Fund. It’s in the hands of each town board and the citizenry of each of the towns whose job it is to make sure that the Fund is protected and invested wisely.
The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island Chapter Summer Benefit – Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Community Preservation Fund to Protect Land and Water will commence with Cocktails and Oysters on the Lawn at 7 p.m., followed by a Seated Dinner Under the Party Tent at 8 p.m. and finally Dessert and Dancing at 9:30 p.m. Tickets start at $1,500.
The Nature Conservancy’s Center for Conservation is located at 142 Route 114 in East Hampton. For more information, call 631-367-3384 ext 138 or visit www.nature.org.