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Jul 20, 2010 6:44 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Lawmakers behind CPF legislation defend the initiative

Jul 20, 2010 6:44 PM

The Community Preservation Fund was established in 1999 in an effort to help protect the character of East End communities through land purchases, but after the administration of former Supervisor Bill McGintee misappropriated millions of dollars from the fund, its future grew cloudy.

On Saturday, the East Hampton Group for Good Government, a watchdog group founded last year, held a forum, which included a panel of six members, among them Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., author of the CPF law, and Councilman Dominick Stanzione, to discuss how the CPF was meant to be used and how the town will administer it through its projected 2030 expiration date.

“What has happened in this town taints the CPF,” Assemblyman Thiele said. “It didn’t cause the problem, it was a victim of the problem.”

To date, the fund has already been used to purchase $200 million worth of property, accrued from a 2-percent real estate tax, and will have a $27 million balance after the town has 
refunded the money that was misappropriated. Before its expiration date, which has been extended twice already, officials estimate that the town could acquire up to $500 million worth of land.

Mr. Thiele reminded attendees that the CPF law is not without substantial levels of oversight. He said all purchases made with CPF money require a “project plan” be in place before any money can be spent. The 
project plan provides a detailed analysis of the property and its potential.

The town also has a CPF advisory committee, which will now be the sole body to analyze the list of potential CPF purchase properties and make recommendations to the Town Board.

Scott Wilson, the town’s CPF liaison, said that although the committee makes its recommendations in executive session, the Town Board has now asked that each property analysis and recommendation be documented on paper, rather than communicated verbally, which means anyone interested in the process would be able to request that document through the Freedom of Information Law. He said meetings of the advisory committee are also open to the public.

Mr. Stanzione said he hoped documenting the conversations on paper would help keep the community involved in the process.

“This additional trail as it relates to the discussion on property selection will hopeful help keep things out in the open,” he said.

Another recent addition to the CPF law, Mr. Wilson said, is a first-time homeowners exemption, which excludes the 2-percent tax on more than $700,000 of a first-time buyer’s purchase price.

One hot topic among those in the audience and on the panel was the idea that the town use the CPF to buy property it already owns, an option that has been broached as possible way to keep Fort Pond House in Montauk, which the Town Board wants to sell to help reduce the deficit, off the block.

“I’m dying to comment on this,” said Mr. Thiele, who then referred to it as a “really bad idea” and one that is “not really a legal idea.”

Mr. Thiele said it doesn’t make sense to use the fund, which although separate from the town general fund, is still a fiduciary responsibility of the town. He said in order for the town to sell property, it must first deem that property surplus, so it’s counter-intuitive to then propose the CPF purchase that property for the town.

Community members were also concerned with the part of the CPF law that allows up to 10 percent annually to be spent on stewardship, which is supposed to be used to improve public access or to maintain land—a category some found vague.

“As environmentalists we want to use the money for land,” said Rick Whelan, a former town attorney and member of multiple preservation groups, who sat on the panel. But he said there are other things the money can go to, such as real estate transaction costs that are “incidental to the land purchase,” like title reports, surveys, and adjustments at closing.

Mr. Wilson said that in East Hampton, only about 2 percent of the fund annually goes to stewardship.

Mary Ella Moeller of East Hampton said she was concerned there was not a long-term plan or analysis of how land purchases made now would cost the town in the future in maintenance. Mr. Stanzione said he was also interested in seeing a more detailed analysis of future costs and impacts.

“There is no microeconomic analysis of the CPF on the town budget,” he said.

Mr. Thiele agreed that now is the time to start looking ahead to 2030 and finding a way to create an endowment that will help fund maintenance for the properties acquired.

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Let's Sell the Town to the CPF for $27 million and wipe out the debt!
What better preservation serves the community!
By voter (33), Amagansett on Jul 21, 10 1:28 PM