The Peconic Land Trust at 35: A Q&A with John v.H. Halsey

John v.H. Halsey

The Peconic Land Trust, which stands as a beacon of hope for those passionate about land preservation and farm sustainability on Long Island, formally turns 35 years old this year. But its seeds were planted a few years earlier, in a lesson the Peconic Land Trust’s president, John v.H. Halsey, learned when visiting his family’s Southampton homestead in 1980. The farm behind his family’s property was up for sale, and when he realized the federal estate tax had crippled his neighbors’ ability to hold onto it, he began to think about how he could help. More than three decades later, the Peconic Land Trust has protected more than 12,000 acres of farms, forests, waterfront land and more, and has no intention of giving up anytime soon — not even as undeveloped land becomes more and more scarce on the East End.

What are some of the Peconic Land Trust’s greatest achievements?

That is so tough to answer because there are so many projects that we’ve completed. We’ve protected over 12,000 acres with a variety of partners — land owners, communities, municipalities and other organizations. Especially in the early days of the Community Preservation Fund, we actually assisted the towns in using their moneys, in facilitating projects where we were essentially hired by the towns to do the negotiations and the closings and such. One aspect of our achievements is really the public-private partnerships that we have built over the years. I think also viewing conservation from a pragmatic, problem-solving perspective — it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s about understanding the land, understanding the goal of the owner and finding a win-win situation where the most important portion is protected because of its conservation value.

Where would you say you’ve had your biggest impact?

I think the approach of problem solving and being pragmatic is where we have had an influence on thought. I think our fingerprints are everywhere on the East End. I would say this: we do all types of conservation but one of the sectors where we have spent a lot of time in recent years is agriculture and ensuring there is a future for farming on Long Island, especially on the South Fork, because that is a very challenging way of life. Land values are very high, so holding on to land over generations is a challenge, and labor is a challenge. Competing with non-farmers who want land is a challenge. How do we ensure farmland is affordable to farmers, especially those who grow food? We’ve had to come up with some novel, outside-the-box tools to ensure that some of the land that’s been protected by us, the towns, and Suffolk County over the last 40 years is actually available to be farmed. We want to do more to educate the public at large about what farming is. It is important for people to have an appreciation of farms as well as the farmland that is required to grow products, especially food.

What are the present challenges in the landscape of preservation, pun completely intended?

Development continues. The pressure on landowners continues. So, we have to continue to find alternatives to the development of the land, and that means more dollars to acquire and protect what people are willing to protect. All of these are voluntary programs. You need to be competitive with the development side of the equation in order to compete. And while we’re really fortunate to have a lot of public money, there’s not enough to do the job.

What are the needs of the organization right now?

For people to understand who we are and what we do. It’s always good for people to know that we are not an arm of the public sector and we don’t get all that 2-percent Community Preservation Fund money. What we are trying to do is work in concert with public programs with private resources. We’re involved in all aspects of conservation, everything from watershed protection, properties that lend themselves to trails and historic properties we will protect, in addition to farms and farmland. And if we have the resources available, for example with a revolving fund, we can jump in and buy something before the town and county can act. We need more revolving funds and we’re working hard to continue to be nimble. There are so many opportunities you have to sort of prioritize, but if you can’t secure the land quickly, you lose the opportunity.

How have you coped with setbacks over the years?

There are certainly projects in which we have invested a lot of energy and they haven’t happened. What’s interesting about that is that sometimes they are gone forever but sometimes they come back, because the circumstances of the owners change or their perception of what they wanted to see happen changes. You lose one, you win two. It’s virtually impossible to be successful in everything you embark on, but you don’t get discouraged. There’s no time to be discouraged. You just persevere.

With less and less land available to be preserved, what do you see as the future of the organization on the East End?

It’s just a fact there is a finite amount of land on Long Island. There are different paths that land can go. That doesn’t mean that if it is developed it can’t be undeveloped — there’s a story behind every one of these. No two projects are the same. I think certainly what’s going to happen with our work when more and more of the land is protected is the monitoring and enforcement of the restrictions on land is going to have to be done diligently, not only by us but by the municipalities that hold development rights. I see our stewardship responsibilities growing over time as we acquire and protect more land. But I think it’s very important for us not to view ourselves as an island, literally, but that our responsibility and goal is to assist the public sector in doing its job, because if they’re not doing their job it impacts everybody.