|The Community Preservation Fund is used to purchase open space, farmland, and historic structures. The McGintee administration purchased the historic Lester property at the corner of Cedar Street and North Main Street.|
The development of the Community Preservation Fund (CPF) is surely one of the most important events in East Hampton’s history—from the time Connecticut farmers and fishermen, originally from Maidstone in East Anglia in England, settled here in 1648 to the present.
In 1998, 350 years after East Hampton’s founding, the five East End towns (East Hampton, Southampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island, and Southold) obtained from the New York State Legislature the right to levy a two-percent real estate transfer tax on land and housing sales. Officially called the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, the program is generally referred to as the CPF. (The CPF should not be confused with the Peconic Land Trust, as it sometimes is. The Peconic Land Trust is a private organization which is funded privately, not through taxation of any sort.)
It is the buyer who pays the transfer tax, not the seller. The tax is not collected from general tax revenues such as real estate and school taxes. In East Hampton, the tax is levied on the sale of houses and buildings whose purchase price is $250,000 or more (the first $250,000 is exempt from the tax) and on unimproved land sold for $100,000 or more (the first $100,000 is exempt as well). By voter referendum the CPF expires in the year 2030. Some exemptions, such as farmer-to-farmer sales, are included in the law.
Money raised in a town stays in the town in which the real estate transfer tax is levied and is used to purchase open space, farmland, and certain historic structures. Under certain circumstances, CPF money may be used for community recreational purposes. In its first decade, tens of millions of CPF dollars have been collected and utilized to spare thousands of acres from development. By protecting property values, this is a savings account for taxpayers.
The remarkable combination of East Hampton’s openness, its farmlands and forests, its bays, harbors, ponds and magnificent beaches, its beautiful vistas, close-to-nature-trails, the soul satisfying sounds of surf, and the smells of fresh sea air combine to make it captivating. The Community Preservation Fund is designed, and legislated, to protect these environmental treasures.
The CPF was not a magnanimous gift bestowed from on high. It is the result of years of hard work by determined, forward thinking citizens and elected officials who worked together to prevent the suburban mediocrity so frequently seen elsewhere on Long Island. Nearly 40 percent of East Hampton’s 70 square miles are now in public ownership – most of it preserved as open space.
The CPF concept was first mentioned publicly by Judith Hope at a Town Board meeting in the early ‘80s when she was the town’s Democratic supervisor. Judith had seen an early version in Nantucket, where it is called a land bank. Her explanation of the land bank immediately switched on light bulbs in the minds of environmentally active individuals. “We’ve got to do it!” they said. But who? And how? Somebody or some organization had to take the initiative.
The “who” was the Group for the South Fork (since renamed Group for the East End) and Kevin McDonald, its vice president at the time. He joined forces with Fred Thiele, our Assemblyman in Albany, and Ken Lavalle, our State Senator, who agreed it was essential. They would craft the legislation, work for its passage in the State Legislature, and secure the signature of the governor to make it happen.
From the outset Kevin had the wholehearted support of the East Hampton Town Board and successive Democratic Supervisors Hope, Tony Bullock and Cathy Lester. At the same time he organized a supportive coalition of businesses, farming interests, real estate companies and civic officials. Getting it done had its setbacks and disappointments, but Kevin was a relentless driving force.
Cathy Lester, with East Hampton Democratic Committee members, made countless bus trips to Albany to persuade legislators. By then the growing support included the Nature Conservancy, the Peconic Land Trust, other environmental organizations, and some Republicans. Although support eventually became widespread, the actual work, the heavy lifting was done by Kevin and East Hampton Democrats.
With a great sigh of “at last,” in 1997 the proposed legislation reached the desk of Governor Pataki. And he vetoed it! But it wasn’t dead; by then support was too strong. In 1998 it was again on Pataki’s desk and he signed it. From the time Judith Hope introduced the idea it had taken 15 years of hard work and determination to battle through discouragement and setbacks to create what is now recognized as one of the most successful land preservation programs in the nation. Kevin McDonald and Assemblyman Thiele continue to receive calls from all over America seeking guidance and particulars. Four similar programs now exist in upstate New York towns.
Many people assume the Community Preservation Fund just somehow happened, a grand gift from government perhaps. Not so: It began at the grass roots level. It is appropriate to call it a gift primarily from East Hampton Democrats, a gift that came just in time to save much of Long Island’s East End. It is a worthy program and a proud legacy.