Pictured Above: Main Street in Amagansett after January’s dust storm.

This past January, a fine layer of dust blew through downtown Amagansett, coating streets and stores, seeping in through library doors and irritating the throats of kids at the Amagansett School.

The dust storm arose after a soaking wet fall postponed farmer Peter Dankowski’s potato harvest on a 33-acre field owned by the Bistrian family just north of downtown, after which their winter cover crop failed to take hold. 

The town and the farmer and land owners worked together to wet down the field and eventually install snow fencing and cover the field with straw in an attempt to keep the dust down. 

The town vowed at the time to work to keep such a situation from happening again, but a proposed regulation unveiled in July that could include jail time had farmers seeing red.

The regulation would require farmers to plant winter cover crops, or, if they were unable to do so or if their cover crops failed, to either leave their original crop in the ground to hold the soil in place, to put down a layer of straw or hay, to apply a certified, non-toxic ‘tackifier’ to the field or to employ erosion-preventing tilling methods.

Farmers could be fined from $500 to $2,500 or jailed for six months for a first offense; fined from  $1,500 to $5,000 or jailed for six months for a second offense, or fined from $2,500 to $10,000 or jailed for six months for a third offense.

Farmers who are members of the town’s agricultural advisory committee said the penalty portion of the proposal was not brought before their committee before the July 18 public hearing.

“We never saw the proposed penalty provision. We didn’t discuss it, and it was specifically stated the proposed language ‘was not punitive,’” farmer, attorney and agricultural advisory committee member Alex Balsam told the town board at the hearing. “You have a law that criminalizes a farmer if the harvest is delayed or he gets a bad batch of cover crop seed.”

“The current board is very friendly to agriculture, but long after you’re gone from town hall we’re going to be stuck with this law that criminalizes the farmer for acts of mother nature. That just sounds crazy when I say that,” he added.

Mr. Balsam added that he recently read a blurb from 1894 in The East Hampton Star about Main Street in Amagansett being inundated with dust from a neighboring farm field.

“This is going to happen again,” he said. “Some version of windblown dust will be back at some point. It’s been that way for generations.”

“Climate change has caused extreme weather events in the spring and fall,” he added. “It’s pinched our season and pinched our bottom line for sure.”

He added that he thinks the town should consider moving the code change from the zoning code, where it is now, to the right to farm section of the town code, where there would be no penalties.

“You don’t want to put farmers in jail anyway,” he said. “Why not just have that not put in there.”

“I’m not sure how the town board feels putting the farmer in jail would help the situation,” added farmer Bill Babinski. “What other industry that’s at the mercy of mother nature is threatened with jail by the town board? If we have a catastrophic hurricane, 20 inches of rain, and the cover crop doesn’t come up, four months later when people forget about it and the dust is blowing, that’s back on the farmer?”

“Could we have disaster declaration?” he added. “Who are the dust police going to be?”

“I don’t think any farmer in this room or on Long Island isn’t conscientious,” said farmer Peter Dankowski. “To be farmer, you have to have your heart in it all the way, believe me.”

“We’ve had a lot of extreme weather the last few years,” he added. “Everybody that planted cover crops, a lot of people cast opinions, but they have no idea what was really going on. Last year, we got rained out the last week of September, and until Nov. 9, we had only 10 days in the field. One week, we had one day.”

“I t think this law is totally ridiculous, and when a man comes to take me to jail, it’s not going to be an easy task, and it won’t be for not planting a cover crop, i’ll tell you that right now,” he added.

Michael Cinque, who owns Amagansett Wine & Spirits, said his business and many others on Main Street suffered through the dust storm. He said he lost an air conditioning condenser that was clogged with dust, many businesses closed during the dust storm, and his cleaning service is still cleaning dust off the bottles in his store.

“We want to solve the problem. Hopefully we can all solve it together,” he said.

Amagansett resident Dan Mongan said his 16-year old daughter, who has severe asthma, had exceptional difficulties during the dust storm, and even his dog developed a cough.

“The dust situation was severe and persisted for well over 30 days… The dust storm was a significant local air pollution event,” he said. “We requested the community be assured best practices would be followed in future, that the situation would be remedied and that town be prepared to deal with emergency situations in the future. I think a good faith effort has been made on all three of those steps, but perhaps none of them have been fully completed.”

Mr. Mongan said jail time for farmers “is not something I personally care about, and if that disappeared it wouldn’t bother me.”

“It would be reassuring to have a fixed date by which cover crop planting should occur,” he said.

Councilman Jeff Bragman, who serves as the town board’s liaison to the agricultural advisory committee, said the penalties in the proposal are “the standard penalties for the classification of penalty it was,” but agreed that jail time seems extreme.

“The effects on Amagansett (from the dust storm) were pretty severe,” he said. “Businesses had to close, the library came to the agricultural advisory committee meeting concerned about damage to books and equipment, other shop owners described expense they had to go to to replace HVAC equipment, kids couldn’t go out and have recess, and kids had sore throats and were coughing. It was not a trivial problem.”

Mr. Bragman added that Southampton Town has a law on the books that makes it a zoning violation to not plant a cover crop by a certain date, but weather, wind, and even birds who eat the seed can make it impossible to comply with that code.

“What we did together, with a great deal of cooperation, was we came up with series of alternatives if the cover crop fails. We will say other means are acceptable and legal to stop the dust from blowing,” he said.

Mr. Bragman said he’s not in favor of moving the code change to the right to farm section, as Mr. Balsam suggested.

“All other regulations on farm fields are in the zoning code. That’s where everybody expects to see regulations,” he said. “Putting it in the right to farm section is an obscure section. That’s not where people go to see use regulations. I think it’s a mistake.”

Mr. Bragman said he was happy to bring the proposal back to the agricultural advisory committee, which met July 31, to discuss the changes.

“Doing nothing is not an option. Blaming global warming is not a solution,” he said. “We have to do something to fix it… It’s important to have some teeth in this law.”

After the July 31 agricultural advisory committee meeting, the proposal can next be brought before the town board at its Aug. 6 work session.

The board closed the public hearing.

— Beth Young

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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