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Long IslandPolitics

Court upholds changes to Suffolk farmland preservation program

An appellate court ruled that farms to which Suffolk has bought development rights can have auxiliary structures such as greenhouses.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, at the Suffolk County Planning Commission meeting at the County Center in Riverhead, on Feb 1, 2017. Photo Credit: John Roca

The state Appellate Division on Wednesday upheld a revision in Suffolk County’s farmland preservation program allowing auxiliary agricultural uses on land to which the county has purchased development rights.

The panel in Brooklyn ruled 3-1 to reverse a 2016 decision by state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan. That ruling threw out program changes allowing special use and hardship permits for structures such as greenhouses and barns, and for equine and agritourism uses on land to which taxpayers acquired building rights.

“This ruling is a victory for Suffolk County agriculture and will give our farmers the confidence and ability to reinvest in the long-term viability of their business,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

The appellate majority ruled “the special use permits do not . . . amount to a transfer of the county’s development rights as these land uses all constitute or are sufficiently related to agricultural production.” Justices Mark C. Dillon, Robert Miller and Betsy Barros concurred.

Justice Linda Christopher disagreed in part with the majority opinion. She said permits for “production facilities and retail merchandising do not constitute agricultural production and it was therefore a waste of taxpayer money to allow such structures on land to which the county has purchased development rights.”

The majority said processing and sales are permissible because they are restricted largely to “on premises and locally grown agricultural products.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, vowed an appeal. He noted that split appellate decisions are rare and said the ruling contradicts an earlier appellate decision that barred county lawmakers from changing the law — which was approved in a public referendum — without submitting it to another public vote.

“The existence of a rare dissent in the ruling and the contradictions from previous court decisions makes the success of an appeal very likely,” Amper said.

The county has preserved 10,723 acres of farmland in its landmark 44-year-old program.

Sarah Lansdale, county planning director, said she hopes the ruling will spur new interest in the voluntary preservation program.

“Folks who were on the fence, so to speak, about selling development rights may now be interested in participating in the program,” Lansdale said. “That’s our hope.”

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