Preserved farmland may see restrictions relaxed

10/25/2013 11:00 AM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed changes to the county's farmland preservation bill that would include more agritourism uses on preserved parcels. Pictured is Reeves Farm on Main Road in Aquebogue.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed changes to the county’s farmland preservation bill that would include more agritourism uses on preserved parcels. Pictured is Reeves Farm on Main Road in Aquebogue.

Amendments to the county code could allow more activities on preserved farmland, as elected officials say opening up uses on the land would permit farming operations to thrive long-term in the face of constantly creeping suburban sprawl.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed changes to the county’s Farmland Preservation Law that would permit uses such as U-pick operations, larger farm stands and processing facilities that create locally crafted goods such as wine or potato chips.

“Suffolk County has a great agricultural heritage,” said Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue). “It’s part of our culture and, just as importantly, it’s a huge part of our economy.”

Mr. Krupski is a farmer himself, one of hundreds in the county who have propelled Suffolk to lead the state in terms of agricultural sales volume. A U.S. Department of Agriculture census completed in 2007 showed the county tallied over $240 million agricultural sales that year, an increase of $40 million – or 20 percent – from five years earlier.

But legislators have still been seeking ways to help the industry grow over the long haul. The process started with implementation of the county’s farmland development program nearly 40 years ago – in addition to town-run Community Preservation Fund programs that have been active since the late 1990s.

The next step is maintaining the farming industry itself, Mr. Bellone said.

“These updates to the county’s Farmland Development Rights program will ensure that current and future generations of Suffolk County farmers will have the economic tools necessary to succeed on Long Island,” Mr. Bellone (D-Babylon) wrote in a statement.

The legislation itself would apply to land purchased in part or in whole by Suffolk County for the purpose of farmland development. According to numbers provided by Southold Town, that could affect 83 parcels comprising over 1,700 acres. In Riverhead, according to town figures, more than 1,750 acres on 54 parcels have been purchased in conjunction with the county since 1998 alone. However, whether or not specific parcels would be able to take advantage of the new allowances, depend on easements on each specific purchase, and local zoning would still apply to any county regulations.

The legislation would double the allowable size of farm stands on preserved land from 500 square feet to 1,000. Processing facilities would be permitted on site, also limited 1,000 square feet in area when combined with the size of a farm stand. Up to 49 percent of goods processed on site could come from other farms on Long Island.

Agritourism regulations would be eased on preserved farmland as well, allowing U-pick facilities, crop mazes, hayrides and educational tours.

Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca said that while supporting farmers who operate on preserved land should indeed be on the county’s priority list after investing in the land, doing so should be done carefully.

“The primary purpose of the underlying investment was for agricultural production, so it’s important that farming not drift too far into entertainment,” Mr. DeLuca said.

“But obviously the underpinning of the financial investment is to protect farmland,” he said. “They don’t want to undercut the core of their investment, which is agricultural land for agricultural production. That requires some delicate balancing and regular scrutiny.”

After one public hearing about the proposed changes earlier this month in Riverside, two more are scheduled for November: on Nov. 8 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 19 at 9:30 a.m. Both meetings will be held at the W.H. Rogers Legislature Building in Hauppauge.