Southampton imposes new rules to preserve farmland

John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, at the Seven Ponds Farm in Southampton on June 20, 2014. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

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Southampton Town is trying to ensure that its preserved farms, tucked amid some of the most expensive real estate in the country, do not turn into manicured lawns or equestrian stables for wealthy neighbors who buy them up.

Though the town, Suffolk County and the nonprofit Peconic Land Trust have bought the development rights off thousands of acres of farmland to prevent them from sprouting mansions or suburban subdivisions, wealthy residents have purchased preserved farm fields next to their estates and used them for decoration or horseback riding, rather than agricultural production.

It's legal but goes against the spirit of the preservation push, which was to give working farmers a foothold amid the "overheated real-estate market" of the Hamptons, said John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust.

"There are some unanticipated consequences to the success" of the preservation, Halsey said Tuesday at a news conference celebrating the preservation of a 33-acre farm in Water Mill. "While we've protected over 12,000 acres in Suffolk County, it's been protected from development, but it's not necessarily all protected for farming."

So Southampton recently employed a new strategy -- buying additional development rights off farms and imposing strict rules that ensure the land is actually used to grow food.

In May, the town board voted 4-0 to spend $11 million of the town's community preservation fund on special development rights that allow the town to impose unusual restrictions on the farmland in Water Mill. The town purchased the rights for the land, which the Peconic Land Trust bought in July for $12 million from the estate of its former owner, Charlotte Danilevsky, who died last year. The nonprofit is seeking qualified farmers to buy the land.

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Eighty percent of the land must be used to grow food, and owners cannot keep horses there, according to the town's rules. If the land remains unplanted for two years, the town can lease it to another farmer. The rules also limit the resale price of the land.

The restrictions help drive down the value of Hamptons farmland, which can reach $200,000 an acre, Halsey said. The Water Mill property will now sell for about $26,000 an acre, he added, noting that it's the first time a municipality used the tactic in New York State.

Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said the strategy could counter the development pressure threatening to drive out farm families.

Adam Halsey, a distant relative of John v.H. Halsey and a 12th-generation farmer who grows vegetables on 82 acres in Water Mill, praised farmland preservation efforts.

"I think it's a very, very important step to helping to preserve the industry of farming out here, and the rural character that is left out here," he said.

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"Without this program that started 40 years ago, the East End, both forks, would look very, very different than they do today."

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