A task force charged with making recommendations on ensuring Community Preservation Fund money is being used properly and efficiently has made its final report to the five East End towns and is calling for new rules and regulations regarding CPF expenditures for the stewardship of preserved properties.
The CPF was established 12 years ago for towns to acquire parkland and historic sites and purchase development rights on farms and open space to preserve the character of the East End and beat back overdevelopment.
Up to 10 percent of CPF money collected may also be used for the stewardship of preserved sites, such as land management and restoring historic structures. "These areas have been the subject of abuse and varied interpretations in the past," stated a press release issued by state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., I-Sag Harbor, Tuesday. "The proposed rules would establish one set of rules applicable to the entire Peconic Bay region."
Thiele cited some examples of CPF abuses in an interview Wednesday, including the town of East Hampton offsetting highway department and police costs against the CPF, uses that the state attorney general deemed not to be legitimate stewardship expenses. The town was directed to reimburse the fund.
The CPF Task Force was created in the beginning of 2010 by Thiele, state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), and then-Assemblyman Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham) and is composed of representatives of the East End towns and members of preservation groups the , the , the and the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. Its recommendations also include that the towns form a regional oversight committee to render legal opinions and interpretations of CPF law and regulations. The committee also would coordinate joint acquisitions of lands that are of interest to multiple towns.
"We believe that the adoption of the CPF Task Force recommendations will reduce the chances that CPF funds could be siphoned off from their dedicated conservation purpose to cover other municipal costs in the future," said Group for the East End President Robert S. DeLuca on Wednesday. He also anticipated that the coordinating committee will help answer future questions that arise concerning the appropriate use of CPF money.
"From our standpoint, the CPF stands as one of the most creative and valuable community planning tools that we have ever employed to preserve the fragile natural and cultural resources of the East End," DeLuca continued. "As the program enters its second decade, we have seen great success, but we have also seen that there is the potential for abuse." He said the Group For the East End believes the task force recommendations will solve some of the CPF's most significant problems.
Thiele presented the recommendations at the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association December meeting.
"Really, there is nothing here that isn't already in the state law," Thiele said Wednesday. "What we're trying to do here is provide transparency and consistency."
The committee will act in an advisory capacity, the same way that town governments may seek an opinion from the state attorney general or comptroller, Thiele said. "It carries legal weight, but it is not binding." However, he warned that "any town that did not follow the committee's recommendation would have some answering to do to the public."
The regional CPF committee would be in addition to each town's CPF advisory board. The state law requires that the majority of members on the advisory boards have demonstrated experience with conservation or land preservation and that the boards include at least one farmer each.
Thiele said town supervisors would appoint the regional committee members.
"The Community Preservation Fund was enacted to protect the East End's environmental treasures," LaValle was quoted as saying in Thiele's press release. "The fund's integrity and transparency demand that the report's recommendations be quickly implemented."
Thiele and LaValle hope the towns will act by February.
How the CPF Works
The CPF is funded by a 2 percent real estate transfer tax, paid for by the buyer whenever parcels change hands on the East End.
In East Hampton, Shelter Island and Southampton towns, the first $250,000 of the purchase price of an improved lot, and the first $100,000 of the price of a vacant lot, are exempt from the 2 percent tax. In Riverhead and Southold, the first $150,000 is exempt for an improved lot, and the first $75,000 is exempt for a vacant lot.
The tax proceeds are disbursed to the town where the transaction took place.
More than $650 million has been collected under the transfer tax since East End voters approved it in a 1998 referendum and nearly 10,000 acres have been preserved, according to Thiele. The tax was originally set to expire in 2020, but a 2006 referendum extended the tax to 2030.
In the town of Southampton, the CPF transfer tax has generated more than $300 million and preserved 3,000 acres of farmland, open space and parks.