Planning for Farmland

There are residential districts; planned shopping districts, historic districts, the list goes on and on. Zoning districts help plan the way towns, cities, counties and states use land.

And farmland.

“In New York most decisions about land are made at the community level, when communities make farms just as important as other land uses, when they plan for farms, farmland is preserved,” David Haight the state director of New York Farmland Trust said.

New York is one of the nation’s top food-producing states and Suffolk County is the state’s top agricultural producer, generating an estimated $168 million in farm products. Yet, New York loses about one farm every 3 1/2 days.

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The New York State Agricultural and Farmland Protection program began in 1996. Since then the program has protected 52,227 acres of farmland in the state through the purchases of agricultural conservation easements. Agricultural conservation easements place a voluntary, legally recorded deed restriction on a property specifying its use solely for agricultural production. On Long Island there are roughly 38,000 acres of farmland, 13,000 of which agricultural conservation easements protect.

Long Island began protecting farmland as part of public policy back in the 1970s when East End farmer John Talmage and Suffolk County executive John Klein came up with the idea of paying farmers to sell their development rights. It wasn’t for decades later, however, when the establishment of the Suffolk County Community Perseveration Fund (CPF) gave a way to pay for development rights as well as the preservation of other land on the East End. A two percent tax on real estate transactions in the eastern five towns of Suffolk County (East Hampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Southampton and Southold) pays for the fund. The tax is calculated based on purchase price and the state of the land. For example, the first $150,000 of a purchase price in Southold and Riverhead is exempt from the tax, the first $75,000 for unimproved land in Southold and Riverhead is exempt and the remaining amount is taxed at two percent.

While no one likes taxes voters in those East End towns have overwhelmingly supported the tax. In 2002, a vote in all five towns to extend the fund and tax until 2020 passed by a 2-1 margin.

While the fund doesn’t just protect farmland but also open space and beach areas the towns of Southold and Riverhead have devoted much of their funds to persevering farmland, Riverhead alone has preserved 1,800 acres of farmland and the model is now used all over the country.

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“Farmland is about quality of life,” Joseph Gergela III, retiring executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau said.

One of the projects Gergela is most proud of in terms of farmland preservation was the 2002 deal to preserve more than 300 acres of farmland on the former KeySpan Energy Corporation land in Jamesport. Gergela worked on the deal that got the state to pay $16 million for the 530 acres in Jamesport, 300 of which went towards farmland. The property had been leased to farmers for decades following the rejection by the state in the 1970s to build two nuclear power plants on it. Under the deal the state sold 300 acres to farmers but kept the development rights to assure the land was not sold to builders.

And yet that’s just one success, but with more than 21,000 acres unprotected and with farmers being offered anywhere from $10,000 to $2,000,000 an acre there’s more that can be done. The American Farmland Trust suggests that towns that want to preserve farmland include a detailed section on agriculture as part of the town’s master plan, making sure to define what agriculture is. For instance is agriculture just cultivating the soil to produce crops and raise livestock or does it include raising fish, agritourism, hydroponics, etc?

Counties should also map local farms and the resources they have. And according the American Farmland Trust towns should have diverse planning boards were farmers serve on the boards and answers readily available to farm business questions such as what type of buffer zones are required between farmland and residential, how are farm businesses supported through farm stands and farm markets.

“Once a farm is paved over for land it’s too expensive for farmers to afford.” Haight said.

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Critical Mass of Farmland Left: Long Island is home to about 38,000 acres of farmland, but only 13,000 are protected