A Billion-Dollar Idea
What does a billion-dollar idea involving nature and Long Island communities look like?
20 years, $1.2 billion and more than 10,000 acres later, we investigate the success of the Community Preservation Fund (CPF).
First, what’s the Community Preservation Fund?
The CPF is a program that protects land and water to preserve the integrity of communities on the East End of Long Island. It’s funded by a 2% tax paid by real estate purchasers, and over the course of its 20-year history, it has generated more than $1.2 billion.
Let’s back up. How did it all begin?
In the 1990s, after the environment had been under siege for decades, elected officials and community members banded together in search of a solution. New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele had drafted a bill ten years prior, the first version of the CPF, that he still believed could be a viable solution. “A coalition came together, which I was part of at the time. The coalition was inclusive of small business owners and members of the real estate community, working across party lines. We worked with [The Nature Conservancy’s] Kevin McDonald, who I consider to be a major player in this.”
The coalition focused on gaining support for the bill, especially in the sectors that were initially opposed to it. Paul Brennan, Long Island realtor and conservationist, remembers, “Builders wanted to keep building and realtors wanted values to keep appreciating. They didn’t want anything that would present an obstacle to those two things. But if we could keep the character, prices would appreciate that much more.” Fred Stelle, an architect, coalition member and champion of the cause explained, “Preserving open space has so many benefits, not the least of which is keeping the spirit and the essence of this place that I live and love. That group cared about the place we live as much as any group.” The best part? The coalition really worked. The team gained support from local realtors and builders, as well as from farmers, after adding CPF language prioritizing farmland protection.
How did they get the bill to pass?
Next, voters had to be convinced to support this novel and ambitious program. “Getting voters out is always challenging. While there was support from the various stakeholders across the region, it was still necessary to convince the hardworking public that it was in their best interest to vote for this tax,” recalls Barbara Blass, Riverhead Environmental Advisory Committee member who spearheaded outreach campaigns for the Riverhead community. Here’s where The Nature Conservancy really stepped in. Team members worked tirelessly to execute smart on-the-ground, local campaigns. They were met with heavy opposition but were ultimately able to connect with community members and demonstrate how the CPF is not only good for nature but good for their communities too. The voters approved the bill, and the CPF came into effect in 1999.
Victory! How has the CPF evolved over time?
Besides generating over a billion dollars and preserving more than 10,000 acres, the CPF has also started to address the issue of water quality. In 2016, the Conservancy led a campaign resulting in overwhelming voter approval of an amendment allowing funds to be used for water quality improvement projects. In addition, the lifespan of this program was extended to 2050, ensuring that environmental issues will be addressed into the future.
What’s next for the CPF and Long Island's Environment?
While the CPF has seen great success, we can’t stop here. Additional investments are necessary – and we must move quickly. East End bays and harbors are suffering from nitrogen pollution, which also threatens our drinking water supply. “We must give back to nature so that nature can give back to us,” notes Nancy Kelley, Long Island Chapter Director.
The story of the CPF demonstrates what is possible when diverse members of a community come together to protect the place they love. Melissa Spiro, land preservation manager for the Town of Southold, reflects, “We couldn’t have done any of what we’ve done here without the CPF. I myself chose to live here for our open space and farmland, and I love to drive down the street saying, ‘We preserved that’ and feel responsible.”
A special thanks to Barbara Blass, Paul Brennan, Melissa Spiro, Fred Stelle and Fred Thiele for their contributions.