Southampton Town officials are confronting a riddle about how to protect 14 Bridgehampton farm acres owned by the Peconic Land Trust. Ronald Lauder gave the property to a precursor of the land trust years ago. Unfortunately, the deal did not include restrictions on what the trust eventually could do with the property, and it even can be sold for house lots. Now the trust has asked Southampton to buy the development rights on the land, using money from the community preservation fund transfer tax, and it has threatened to put the farmland on the market if the town doesn’t come through.
The public-relations problem for both parties comes from a misperception that the land is already preserved. Technically, it has not been, but the sense still is that the preservation fund should not be tapped unnecessarily. The trust says it would use the money to save more land, perhaps as much as 100 acres of additional farmland. Opponents say not so fast: The fund was not created to help underwrite the activities of private organizations. To them, the proposal looks a lot like extortion.
Southampton officials should call the Peconic Land Trust’s bluff. We hate to say it, given the land trust’s positive record, but if the group wants to go ahead and put itself out of business as a preservation organization, town officials should respond, “Be our guest.” Public reaction to the trust’s selling off farmland for development would be swift and severe — and diminish the confidence of future donors. We hope that the trust would not take that almost-certainly fatal step.
With the Town of Southampton as a partner, the land trust can continue to help broker deals to conserve farmland it believes needs saving. Engaging in risky and adversarial brinkmanship is the wrong approach.