When Southampton Town began preserving farmland at the inception of the Community Preservation Fund 16 years ago, there was little inkling of how wealthy would-be landowners would take advantage of land whose development rights were stripped, purchasing parcels at bargain prices to create expansive lawns and private horse farms.
Last week, after years of discussion on rethinking the town’s land preservation methods, the Southampton Town Board unanimously agreed to preserve its first farmland parcel using new criteria that the land, two parcels totaling 33 acres on the corner of Head of Pond Road and Leo’s Lane in Water Mill, must remain in the hands of working farmers.
The Peconic Land Trust, a non-profit that conserves working farms, is in contract to purchase the property from the estate of Charlotte Danilevsky once the development rights are sold to the town. Southampton will pay a little over $11 million, about $338,000 per acre, for the development rights using the Community Preservation Fund.
Southampton Community Preservation Fund Director Mary Wilson said at a public hearing May 27 that anyone who farms the land in the future cannot use it for equestrian, horticulture or vineyard purposes, with the intent that it “remain in productive food crops and remain affordable to qualified farmers.”
In recent years, sales prices of preserved farmland to non-farmers have skyrocketed as high as $200,000 per acre, after the development rights are already sold, according to the Peconic Land Trust, which estimates that the price of an average preserved acre is about $100,000, well out of the reach of most farmers who work in food production.
“This is a new direction for the Community Preservation Fund, to make sure some of the land is in perpetuity preserved for active farming, rather than lying fallow and becoming someone’s lawn,” said Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. “These are the first properties coming forward as part of this.”
Councilwoman Bridget Fleming added that the average price of farmland elsewhere in New York State is about $17,000 per acre.
“We have a unique problem. Our property values are so high, it’s created tremendous pressure on farmers,” she said. “It’s incredibly difficult to sustain a true agricultural lifestyle.”
Sagaponack farmer Lee Foster, who sits on the town’s agricultural advisory board, was the first to praise the transaction.
“The stars have truly lined up,” she said. “This is a large block of farmland and we’re very grateful for how this has transpired.”
Dianne Rulnick lives across the street from the farmland, and she said she is thrilled it will be preserved.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “I walk there three miles often on Cooks Lane, and I marvel every day at the magnificant farmland that is already preserved. To walk past these lands and know they’re going to be protected makes me so proud of you and our community.”
John Halsey (not John v.H. Halsey of the Peconic Land Trust), whose daughters now run the Milk Pail fruit farm in Water Mill, said he is also excited at the precedent being set by the new goals of the development rights program.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing easy about making decisions about land and families,” he said. “Most of those farming today would like to have more land. Affordable land is the most important obstacle to farming in Southampton.”
Mr. Halsey added that, despite comments to the contrary by some real estate brokers, the remaining farmers in Southampton “are not crazy.”
“They’re the most progressive, astute agriculturists in the country,” he said.
“Non -agricultural use of agricultural preserved land was never envisioned in the 1970s and 80s,” he added. “Hopefully, it’s only the beginning. Many of us would be taking advantage of buying that land.”
Peconic Land Trust Conservation Planning Director Melanie Cirillo thanked the town board for helping the Land Trust be a competitive bidder on the property, which could have been sold to a developer.
“We could not purchase this without your partnership,” she said. “It will be available for farmers to grow food.”
Kimberly Doyle of Water Mill also applauded the transaction.
Once a farm is lost, it is lost forever,” she said. “If we do not preserve them, what are we leaving for future generations? Does Water Mill need another subdivision or development? I cannot think of a better use of the fund’s resources than to preserve a working farm.”