Farmers usually spend the winter months ordering seeds, planning their crop placement and fixing machines, but this winter, the East End farming community is wondering instead what a recent court decision will mean for their spring plans.
In September of 2016, the New York State Supreme Court struck down amendments to Suffolk County’s farmland preservation law allowing farmers to build more farm buildings than originally on preserved land, and issued an injunction prohibiting the Suffolk County farmland commission from granting permits.
The 2010 “hardship exemption” allowed farmers to get special permits build barns, equipment storage buildings and greenhouses on up to 25 percent of a preserved parcel if they can show the county’s farmland commission that the established limit of 10 to 15 percent would pose a hardship.
The Pine Barrens Society filed the suit against the county in 2010 in New York State Supreme Court, calling for farmers who have sold their development rights but then built on their land to return the money they were paid by the government for the development rights.
The Pine Barrens Society alleged that, since the original preservation program was adopted through a 2007 public referendum, any amendments to the program must also be put for a vote before the public.
The Suffolk County Legislature heard three hours of public testimony Tuesday, Feb. 7 on a new local law that would reverse amendments to the program, keeping in place the language of the 2007 referendum.
The bill was proposed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and sponsored by South Fork County Legislator Bridget Fleming and North Fork County Legislator Al Krupski. The county executive’s office is also appealing the court decision.
As the agricultural industry changes, more farmers are turning to greenhouses and production facilities to make finished products out of their crops, in order to make their farming operations financially viable.
Many farmers who spoke Tuesday said these changes are necessary for the industry to survive.
Riverhead farmer Phil Schmitt said that most of his 165-acre farm is not preserved.
“The way it sits now, I would have to be a fool to sell my development rights,” he said, but added that he wants to do what he can to help his family continue to farm when he can’t farm anymore.
Sara Gordon, who serves as the planning and development director for Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, said the county’s development right purchase program returned agriculture to Shelter Island.
“The work you’ve done is inexpressively important,” she said. “You prevented the conversion of 83 acres to residential development. It could have been 30 houses.”
Sagaponack farmer Jim Pike said that, when he first purchased preserved farmland nearly a decade ago, the first thing he did was put in a deer fence. He said he believes farmers who buy preserved land now should have the same right.
Scott DuBois, who owns Breeze Hill Farm in Peconic, has been in business for just five years.
“This resolution is absolutely vital, not just to our farm, but to the future of farming on Long Island,” he said. “All we’re asking for is a definition of what we can and cannot do.”
Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Richard Amper, whose organization brought the lawsuit that started this controversy, said he voted for the original 2007 referendum. He said he’d be fine with the program if amendments were put before the voters for a public vote. He also said he doesn’t think deer fences should be subject to restrictions.
He said he originally brought the lawsuit after a farmer in Center Moriches stripped the topsoil off his preserved farmland and built permanent cement greenhouses and “turned this into a factory.”
“Farmers are telling all of us they need to do other things,” he said. “They can build the Empire State Building on their property if people say that’s what they want them to do.”
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County Executive Director Vito Minei said that the court decision does specifically reference prohibitions on fences, despite Mr. Amper’s comments.
“If the judge’s decision stands, we will see more ‘for sale’ signs [on farms] and we will end up getting what he says he’s against,” he added.
Wading River farmer David McLarin, who has been in the greenhouse business for 40 years and serves as the chairman of Riverhead’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, said “one greenhouse grower probably shouldn’t make the entire program go to its knees.”
He added that the court decision is “taking the guts out of an extremely wonderful program.”
“I don’t think people will sell their development rights because of this,” he said.
The legislature recessed the public hearing in order to take public comment into consideration and consult with their attorneys before taking a vote.
“In my over 30 years experience in farmland preservation, it seems from time to time there are questions about the program moving forward,” said Al Krupski, the lone farmer on the legislature, who sponsored the bill. “Everyone wants to make the program better. Better means it’s going to work for people who are in that program, and for people who want to get into that program. There’s a tremendous amount of unprotected farmland on eastern Long Island. If we don’t act, we will lose it to tract housing and strip malls.”
“We will restore the program,” he added.
“As a mom, I value the ability to feed kids and families fresh local foods,” said Bridget Fleming. “I’ve witnessed how enormous financial pressure toward overdevelopment marches inexorably on. Farms play a critical role in keeping that development at bay.”
Ms. Fleming said the county’s development right purchase program “allows agriculture to survive” on Long Island.
“It’s interesting that in a community that boasts many passionate environmental organizations, we’ve heard from only one detractor,” she added. “Environmentalists know how important this program is and how important farms are.”