The great story of land-preservation on the South Fork of Long Island (“the Hamptons”) is losing many of its first-hand witnesses. Another departed this life just before Christmas: John V.N. Klein, who as Suffolk County Executive launched the first major effort to sustain farmland on some of the richest (both in nutrients and dollar value) soil in America.
This obituary in Newsday captures the outline of 90-year-old Klein’s career—a Republican lawyer who became a political lightning rod not so much for his conservation efforts as (ironically) for his support of a rare major sewer project in then-rustic Suffolk County that turned costly and corrupt. After being voted out of office for that linkage, he went on to lobby on various projects on Long Island’s East End.
But the farmland efforts were his primary Hamptons legacy. A surviving participant in that story, Water Mill farming patriarch Tom Halsey, described the scene to me in interviews last year for a history I’m compiling of the period. Halsey was a new chairman of the Southampton town planning board when Klein approached him—the county executive, also fresh to the job, had been shocked by an aerial survey of the rapid subdividing of parcels near the ocean and southern bays of the county.
The early 1970s were a transitional time on the South Fork. At much the same time as the onetime “Summer Colony” was being sought out by a new wave of affluent New York City weekenders, the area’s historic agricultural base was in full retreat. The potato crop of recent decades was suffering from price competition and pests, and the generation following on early (and greatly Polish) tenders of the soil wanted out. As Halsey (whose own clan was one of the earlier-still English settlers) recalled, Klein, of western Suffolk where development had come sooner, asked why the eastern stretches were then being so suddenly converted. Estate taxes, Halsey says he replied.
The trick for preservationists was to come up with cash to pay the death duties so that families who wanted to keep growing row crops could cover their bills. The solution was the first iteration of a scheme—taxpayer purchase of development rights to the parcels—that continues in other forms to this day. The public-policy argument, beyond the visual benefits of maintaining a farming heritage and open space, was that forestalling suburban tract homes (more common to the Hamptons before the huge price increases to follow) would save tax dollars in the long run. The towns would not have to provide municipal services to that population.
Many land-use controversies would follow over the years, and Tom Halsey would be in the middle of several of them, as planning board chair and later a Southampton town councilman. (See the photo here of a letter he wrote to questioning local media about the farmland matters in particular.) But Klein, whose predecessor Lee Dennison had begun Suffolk County’s grappling with its growth pains, was at the forefront of a changed local consciousness. After Klein left office, attention would shift from “south of the highway” parcels to those around the northern woodlands and bays of the South Fork, and he would play a role, if less memorable, in those.