This September, the New York State Supreme Court struck down a 2010 Suffolk County law allowing farmers to build more farm buildings on preserved land, and this week, the county has pledged to fight back.
In September of 2010, the county adopted a new “hardship exemption,” allowing 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.
In November of 2010, the Pine Barrens Society filed suit against the county 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.
Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Richard Amper pointed out when the suit was filed that the county’s farmland preservation program was approved through a public referendum, and allowing development on the preserved land was “a gift of public assets without a public purpose.”
“The court made it clear that politicians can not alter programs approved by the public at referenda, without a subsequent referenda, asking voters to decide whether or not they approve of the proposed changes,” said Mr. Amper in a statement after Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan’s decision in September. “It’s obvious that the public would never vote to use public funds to prevent development, only to allow farmers to develop the land anyway.”
County Legislator Al Krupski, food bank representatives, farmers and representatives from the Peconic Land Trust said they had appealed the decision at a press conference at the Suffolk County Legislature’s Hauppauge office Tuesday.
Mr. Krupski, a farmer, thanked County Executive Steve Bellone and the county attorney’s office for moving forward with the appeal, and said the county will be forming a committee to “lend clarity to the path ahead and to restore integrity to the Suffolk County Farmland Protection Program. We need the full commitment of the county executive and legislature.”
“There is great diversity in agriculture, and not everyone understands what is needed to operate a productive farm or agricultural operation,” said Mr. Krupski. “Agriculture is changing. Different farming techniques, new technology and methods are emerging, along with the opportunities they present. Infrastructure needs may change. We need to adapt to accommodate these changes if we want to preserve agriculture and farming.”
The court’s ruling also came with a permanent injunction prohibiting the county from granting the special permits and hardship exemptions.
Peconic Land Trust President John v.H. Halsey said in a statement Wednesday that the Land Trust “is very concerned about the recent court ruling and its impact on our local working farms so important to Long Island’s jobs and tourist economy. Suffolk County’s landmark farmland protection program is about assuring the future of farming and agricultural production first and foremost. Of course, there are open space benefits related to working landscapes, but they have never been intended to be at the expense of agriculture itself.”
“Agricultural production by definition includes structures like barns, greenhouses and fences,” he added. “Such structures are essential to the business of farming, and do not just benefit the farmer, but also the public, residents and visitors alike, who afforded access to a wide variety of locally grown products, including food, wine and horticultural products. In short, agriculture is a central component of Long Island’s history and community character from which all benefit.”
Riverhead farmer Mark Zaweski, a member of the Suffolk County Farmland Commission, shared the Land Trust’s concerns.
He said the court decision “has far-reaching consequences to the already burdened Suffolk County farmers. Equipment storage buildings, greenhouses to start young seedlings for early market sales as well as high tunnels to prolong the growing season are of utmost importance in today’s evolving agricultural industry.”
“Fences to protect our crops as well as to maintain food safety are a necessity to grow anything here on Long Island due to the overwhelming wildlife population. For equine and any animal production, shelters are required by law,” he added. “But beyond all this, the economic impact in the reduction of land value is devastating. Most farmers use their land as collateral to borrow against to make capital improvements, purchase new equipment or upgrades to stay in compliance with local, state and federal laws such as fuel tanks, spray pads, food safety requirements, etc. If these necessary things are no longer allowed, farmers who have sold their development rights will have a difficult time continuing on, and those that haven’t will not even consider entering into the program, which then leaves those farms for possible development into more homes and subdivisions.”