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Bellone seeks to boost agritourism business

Erin Haggerty, 5, jumps for joy while picking

Erin Haggerty, 5, jumps for joy while picking pumpkins at Schmitt Farm in Melville. Under a proposal by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone operators of local agritourism businesses also could expand the types of products they can sell beyond crops, to include some branded merchandise, such as T-shirts. (Oct. 21, 2007) Credit: Sean Haggerty

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is seeking to boost the region's agritourism business with a new proposal to overhaul the laws that greatly restrict building and sales activity on protected farmland.

The administration has introduced a bill that for the first time would allow farms for which the county owns development rights to operate retail stands year-round, rather than seasonally, and to double the size of the stands to up to 1,000 square feet. Operators also could expand the types of products they can sell beyond crops, to include some branded merchandise, such as T-shirts.

"We have this great farm preservation program, but we don't want to bring [farmers] into this partnership with government and then hobble their ability to compete and do business on their land," Bellone said. "This is not just about preserving land; it's about strengthening the business of farming."

If approved by the county legislature, the amendments to Suffolk's farmland development rights program also would permit the protected farms to conduct some on-site processing of crops, including canning, baking and packaging. Farms could offer attractions, including hayrides and corn mazes.

Bellone said farmers began to appeal to him to loosen development rights restrictions during his 2011 campaign, and that a series of meetings with farmers and environmentalists over the past year led to his proposal. "I think we have a solid consensus," Bellone said.

Since 1974, Suffolk has spent $250 million to secure development rights to 10,500 acres of farmland, encompassing 357 different parcels. The county ranks first annually in New York State in agricultural sales, with development-protected farms accounting for a third of that total, county officials said.

"This will help stem development pressures, entice new farmers to join the program, and ultimately preserve the long-term economic viability of farming on Long Island," said Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela.

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chairwoman of the legislature's Environment Committee, said it will be important to ensure that "we're not allowing too much" development.

But she said she was inclined toward the Bellone proposal because, "If farmers are able to make a living after they sell development rights to us, then more are likely to follow. Then we have more farms staying farms than becoming housing developments."

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