Future expanded use of Suffolk County farmland set aside for preservation with public funds could be blocked by a recent state court ruling that rejected county laws that allowed greenhouses, winery wedding halls and other structures on the protected property.
The additional uses, which include commercial solar farms, storage warehouses and other structures that some consider essential to modern agriculture, were approved by the Suffolk County Legislature on properties for which Suffolk has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase “development rights.”
Hundreds of Suffolk farmers have sold their right to develop farmland while retaining ownership under a 1970s-era law aimed at preserving farms. In 2010 and 2013, the legislature approved expanded uses of protected properties, requiring approval by a county farmland committee before such uses can go forward. The program is paid for through a portion of the 0.25 percent county sales tax that goes to protect drinking water.
But in a ruling that has set off alarms in the East End farming community, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan last month said the later resolutions went beyond the intent of the original land preservation referendum by illegally allowing “structures” that constituted a “substantial intrusion” on public rights.
The ruling declared the 2010 and 2013 amendments “null and void,” and of “no further effect,” thus barring permits and hardship exemptions under the law.
Suffolk has spent $260.8 million to preserve 10,636 acres of farmland, most in Riverhead and Southold. Towns and nonprofit groups have preserved another 8,753 acres. The county’s goal is to preserve an estimated 30,000 of the county’s total 39,000 acres of farmland.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the county would appeal the ruling, which he said would “effectively gut the farmland preservation program. If farmers can’t do the things necessary to run a successful operation, we can’t have farming here anymore.”
At Windy Acres Farm in Calverton, the ruling would have prevented construction of a storage barn with an electrical connection. Earlier this year, the farmland committee approved construction of the barn, and a foundation already has been poured. Building is scheduled to start in the next month.
“The barn’s going up,” said Diana Yakaboski, co-owner of the 66-acre farm, with development rights sold for all but 3 acres. She said the court decision “isn’t right. If you have a farm, you need storage. Where do I put my equipment? Where do I put hay?”
If the ruling stands, she said, “We’ll get on the bandwagon and fight like everybody else.”
But not all farmers are opposed. Russ McCall, owner of McCall Wines in Cutchogue, said he supports the restrictions. Pointing to large commercial operations for warehouses and greenhouses, he said, “That’s not farming, it’s a city.” He added, “Farmland is farmland.”
McCall’s property is protected partly under the Suffolk program and the balance under a Southold Town program. His winery includes a 120-foot-tall wind-energy turbine, something the court’s ruling on county-preserved property would preclude. McCall noted that Southold is encouraging farmers to develop renewable energy for their own use.
The ruling would not affect development that has already taken place on county-protected land, said Dick Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, which brought the original suit.
Amper said the new uses go far beyond what the original farmland preservation law intended.
“There’s a difference between a farm stand where you get corn and a catering establishment where you hold your daughter’s wedding,” Amper said. “It ain’t American Gothic anymore with the farmer holding a pitchfork. These people have friends in high places that will give them what they want.”
Amper said Bellone and the county have got it wrong. First, he noted, the legislative action that expanded the original farmland preservation act should have been subjected to a public referendum. His original lawsuit, filed in 2010, accuses the county of “attempting to formalize a growing practice of allowing farm owners to install structure, including greenhouses, covering up to 25 percent of the land.”
The suit called the practice an “illegal gift of public funds for private purposes and a waste of public money” because it’s being done without statutory authority or the public’s approval. Amper has noted that farmers make up the committee that is approving the uses.
Amper said the court’s ruling would likely block any future development of large commercial solar installations on county-protected land. He said the Pine Barrens Society opposes solar arrays on food-farms, but not on sod farms that retain development rights.
Bellone said the county is “looking at every option possible to address this,” including working with state government that has supported farmers.
“This can’t stand; we’re the oldest farmland preservation program in the country,” he said. “This is something everybody [across the country] will be looking at.”
Suffolk Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) questioned whether the court took into account the plight of modern farmers, many of whom operate on thin or nonexistent margins.
“I don’t know if the judge understood really what this means to agriculture,” said Krupski, a farmer whose property is not protected by the county. “Agriculture changes over time, it has changed over the centuries. If you don’t let it change, you’re going to be importing more and more food. We can’t let that continue to happen.”