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Bellone proposes law to circumvent farmland program court ruling

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addresses the Suffolk

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addresses the Suffolk County Legislature at the beginning of the 2017 session in Smithtown, Jan. 3, 2017. Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed a local law to circumvent a recent court ruling which bars farmers from erecting farmstands and other structures on land where the public owns the building rights, under the county’s landmark farmland program.

In September, Justice Thomas Whelan threw out two laws passed in 2010 and 2013 that allowed farmers to get special-use permits and hardship exemptions to build structures such as greenhouses, barns and solar and wind generators on land where the public had bought out farmers’ right to build anything as part of the farmland-preservation program.

“We disagree with the decision,” said Bellone. “This is the oldest and most successful farmland program in the country and we will fight to protect it.”

Bellone said Whelan’s ruling specifically struck down the process whereby a county-appointed committee could grant waivers and permit hardship exemption for farmland construction within the program.

Under the proposed legislation, the legislature itself would be granting farmers the right to put up limited farm-related structures without permits, he said. The county is also appealing Whelan’s decision.

But critics say Bellone’s plan will backfire and the only way to legally reverse the court ruling is with a legal appeal or a voter referendum.

Bellone’s proposal comes after the Long Island Pine Barrens Society successfully challenged 2010 and 2013 amendments to the original 1974 program. Those amendments set up a process to erect farm-related structures. Suffolk has preserved 10,000 of the county’s 39,000 farm acres.

In his decision last September, state Supreme Court Justice Whelan found “The development allowed . . . constitutes a substantial intrusion upon the public rights to prohibit development as the existing openness . . . is diminished, if not extinguished” by the building of structures.

He also ruled the farmland-preservation program, adopted in a public referendum can only be changed by another public vote.

Paul Sabatino, who was an attorney for the Pine Barrens Society in the case, called the proposed law “a kamikaze move.”

The bill “will eviscerate their [the county’s] appeal and blow up whatever’s left of the preservation program,” he added.

Richard Amper, Pine Barrens Society executive director, said farmland construction alienates the public, which has invested millions to protect farms.

“Voters are willing to save open space, protect fertile soils and scenic vistas to prevent development, but not if politicians and the farm lobby steal their money,” he said.

However, East End lawmakers Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and Bridget Fleming (D-Noyack) — who are co-sponsoring Bellone’s bill — say such steps are vital for local farms to survive.

“We don’t pull a plow with oxen anymore” said Krupski, himself a farmer. “If the business of farming does not work, we won’t have farms.”

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