Pictured Above: (L-R) Lucy Bradley, Deborah Ann Light and John v.H. Halsey at the dedication of the land Ms. Light donated to the Peconic Land Trust, kicking off four decades of land preservation efforts.

The endless vistas of farm fields and waterways on the East End are something we’ve grown so used to seeing that we take them for granted, not realizing that their fate could have been to become an endless montage of strip malls and suburban subdivisions, like much of western Long Island.

If you take a look at the timeline the Peconic Land Trust prepared for its 40th Anniversary celebration this year, you’ll realize that none of this is an accident. It’s the hard work of this organization, along with innovative farmland preservation programs run by Suffolk County and individual towns’ Community Preservation Programs, that has kept this place so unique.

From Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, one of the most longstanding community supported agriculture and farm apprentice training programs in the country, to Southold’s Shellfisher Preserve, which has proven to be an incubator for jumpstarting the aquaculture industry on the East End, to the recent purchase of the Broad Cove Farm in Aquebogue, a former duck farm which had been proposed to become a resort riverside hotel, and hundreds of unique projects in between, the East End’s economy and its vistas owe much to the Land Trust’s work.

“They’ve been an incredible partner, working with the agricultural community and the Farm Bureau and other groups,” said Long Island Farm Bureau Administrative Director Rob Carpenter. “They give farmers help with the complexities of preserving land on Long Island. Without the Land Trust, many of these properties wouldn’t have been preserved.”

A future in which the East End valued its farms wasn’t a foregone conclusion when Peconic Land Trust Founder and President John v.H. Halsey came home to Southampton to visit his family in 1980, on a break from working as a non-profit organizational development consultant in San Francisco.

Mr. Halsey, whose father was a doctor at Southampton Hospital, grew up on Wickapogue Road in Southampton Village, at a time when “between the hospital and Mecox Bay was about 1,000 acres of farmland.”

“I had a very deep appreciation for my environs,” said Mr. Halsey, who worked on the farm of a distant Halsey cousin during his teenage years, where he “learned how to drive a tractor, carry irrigation pipe across potato fields, how to hoe corn, how to shingle farm buildings, paint the inside of farm buildings and do rudimentary plumbing.”

“My time was never wasted,” he said. “if it was raining, there would always be something to do inside. What amazed me most was the commitment and ingenuity and independence of farmers. I learned so many life skills.”

But in 1980, at 28 years old, Mr. Halsey returned home to find a For Sale sign in front of the farm next door to his childhood home. It had been in his neighbor’s family for 10 generations, but when the parents who owned the house died, their three children ended up with a then-huge inheritance tax of $2.2 million. The only way they could pay the tax was to sell the family farm.

“Throughout the 1970s, there was a huge appreciation in real estate, especially on the South Fork, and a lot of farm families ended up getting caught up in that,” said Mr. Halsey in an interview with The Beacon this spring. “They ended up in a sales agreement with a developer, which was contingent on a subdivision approval, with a sale price of $4.1 million. They also ended up paying a 47 percent penalty because the IRS began charging interest (on the original $2.2 million).”

“At the end of the day, they ended up with next to nothing,” said Mr. Halsey. “My dad rattled off a number of farms in Bridgehampton and elsewhere that were facing the same plight. Seeing that unfold was the impetus for me to think about coming back. The next summer I came back and found some other folks that were interested in setting up a land trust.”

At the time, farmland across the United States was facing unprecedented development pressures, and families were facing inheritance tax issues due to the appreciation of the value of their land. Land trusts were beginning to be developed throughout the country to address these issues, and an organization called the Land Trust Exchange was established in 1982. 

Audrey and Charlie Raebeck, then the co-directors of the Group for the South Fork (now the Group for the East End) introduced Mr. Halsey to Land Trust Exchange Founder Andy Johnson, who had been working on preserving farmland in Pennsylvania. Mr. Johnson, who married a Long Islander, was a frequent visitor here and he put Mr. Halsey in touch with organizers of land trusts across the Northeast.

Mr. Halsey, who holds a Masters Degree in Planning and Organization form the School of Social Welfare at U.C. Berkley, already knew quite a bit about non-profit management from his work in California, and these new connections put the Peconic Land Trust on the right track.

“Being able to tap into the land trust community early on accelerated our demonstration projects,” he said of the organization, which at the time had no employees and now has a staff of just over 30. “Our first grant was a startup grant from the Long Island Community Foundation for $5,000. It enabled us to get some space out of the spare bedroom where I was living.”

Mr. Halsey supported himself by picking melons and grading potatoes on Gurden Ludlow’s Bridgehampton farm as he worked to set up the Peconic Land Trust board in 1983. 

One of his original board members, Deborah Light, owned 230 acres of farm fields and woodlands in Amagansett, and her willingness to take part in the Land Trust’s first experiment in preservation set the Land Trust on the road to success.

“She said ‘all right, I’ll be your guinea pig, but that doesn’t mean I’ll do what you come up with,’” said Mr. Halsey. “She didn’t realize the plan was going to be based on her goals, needs and circumstances. We needed her input to craft something that made sense to her.”

The property could have easily been 200 housing lots, said Mr. Halsey, but at the beginning of their discussions Ms. Light was thinking of subdividing out 15 lots, leaving most of the rest of the property to be farmed. But as she walked the property again and again with members of the board, she realized she didn’t want to see new houses on the property. By the end of their discussions, she had decided to subdivide out three lots, whose development rights were sold to Suffolk County to support stewardship of the land. 

Today Quail Hill, along with the Land Trust’s Agricultural Center at Charnews Farm in Southold, serves as incubators for new working farmers on the East End.

Quail Hill would also be the beginning of a decades-long project to work with individual land owners on how to accomplish their vision for their land.

“They’re all different, and you have to think outside the box sometimes to come up with solutions,” said Mr. Halsey. “Those challenges result sometimes in new tools that we haven’t used before. I love puzzles, and every one of these projects is a puzzle. It isn’t always about owning land, or holding conservation easements. In some instances we don’t end up owning anything. We’re helping with negotiations.”

Shellfish farmers Katie Marino, Karen Rivara and Melanie Douglass (l-r) at the Land Trust’s Shellfisher Preserve, where they were raising resilient Peconic Bay scallops in 2020.

Down on the Bayview peninsula in Southold is the Shellfisher Preserve, another early Land Trust project that came about after Land Trust board member and noted North Fork environmentalist Paul Stoutenburgh introduced Mr. Halsey to John Plock, who founded the Shelter Island Oyster Company at the site in 1935.

“That facility was state of the art when it was built,” said Mr. Halsey. “They created a lagoon with a channel that had a Quonset hut over the channel, which created a tidal flow in and out of the lagoon year-round. They were able to continue raising oysters throughout the winter. They had a hatchery there in an underground bunker.”

Mr. Halsey remembers that, after the Plock family suffered several personal and business setbacks, the property went up for auction on the steps of Southold Town Hall. He was at that auction, where no one came up with a bid. The Plock’s family attorney saw him there and asked, “John, did you bring your checkbook?”

The Peconic Land Trust eventually worked out an agreement that allowed the Plock family to develop four housing lots, but protected the 14 acres that included the shellfish nursery. They allowed owners of the new building lots access to dock space there.

The Land Trust then entered into an agreement to have Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, which runs a nearby marine center at Cedar Beach, manage the property, giving shellfish farmers a place to expand their businesses. 

“It was a really great partnership, and it resulted in the restoration of a very unique facility,” said Mr. Halsey. “It was a classic case — it took 10 years from the time I was introduced to Mr. Plock to the time it was ultimately given to us.”

Mr. Halsey has seen a steady stream of new people wanting to learn about farming. It’s the impetus for the Land Trust’s Farms for the Future program, which serves as a business incubator for people who are new to working the land.

“I haven’t seen any waning of interest in agriculture. Some of the people who get into our incubator program say ‘maybe this isn’t what I want to do,’ but that’s ok. It’s all part of the journey,” he said. “They might just as well find out on acre of land they can rent from us with deer fencing and irrigation, as opposed to going out further on a limb and deciding they don’t want to do it. For those who do make it, we provide opportunities to move to larger acreage. We’ve been able to sell protected farmland to established farmers, and to brand new farmers. The challenge for new farmers, whether young people or second career people, is getting access to land.”

Governor George Pataki signed the CPF legislation in 1998 as (l-r) Kevin MacDonald of The Nature Conservancy, Mr. Halsey, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and State Senator Kenneth LaValle looked on. The program would prove crucial to protecting farmland on the East End. While the Land Trust is not the recipient of the funding, it helps farmers navigate applying for funding from CPFs run by East End towns.

The Land Trust isn’t alone in the fight to keep land in agriculture, and particularly in food production. Suffolk County’s 1974 Farmland Conservation Program was the first program of its kind in the country, and the IRS has developed tax incentives for people to donate the development rights on their land.

Mr. Carpenter, who has been with the Long Island Farm Bureau since 1985, said that early drafts of Suffolk County’s plan involved the government buying farmland and leasing it back to farmers, unaware that banks use farmland as the collateral for loans farmers need each year to start their growing season.

The county program, and later individual East End town Community Preservation Fund, then evolved into a mechanism by which farmers would sell their development rights but keep the title to their land. The Land Trust has been at the forefront of helping farmers navigate these complex tools.

Mr. Halsey hopes that, with the help of these tools, the East End will enter the future as “a place full of healthy communities integrated into a healthy environment, with a diversity of agriculture, including food, with clean drinking and surface waters.”

“I’m sure we’ll get there, but going to take a lot of work,” he said. “Water quality is a huge imperative — we need to upgrade septic systems and use agricultural practices that minimize adverse impacts to coastal and groundwaters, and, in a collaborative way, help our farmers get to the best place they can be.”

Mr. Halsey said the Land Trust isn’t planning a huge number of celebratory events this year, other than to thank people who have supported their work, at their annual volunteer thank-you event, the Peconicinic, and at their annual Through Farms and Fields Gala, to be held Aug. 6 at the Port of Missing Men in North Sea. At the gala, the Land Trust will honor supporter Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management, a member of the group’s Trustees Council for more than a decade who was instrumental in making the Broad Cove project happen.

“Solving any problem begins with acknowledging it,” said Mr. Marks. “If we want to keep the East End this special place, it’s not going to happen by itself. Peconic Land Trust is a wonderful organization dedicated to preserving the specialness of what we have.”

—BHY

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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