Editorial: Farmfield minefields

It comes as no surprise whatsoever that the Satur Farms dispute has landed before a state Supreme Court justice. (See story on page 3.) Given the intensity of the rancor between farm operators and nearby residents, that seemed inevitable.

It’s an unusual dispute in that the days of quality-of-life battles pitting farmers against neighbors seemed far behind us. Except for two letters to the editor in this issue objecting to the use of anti-bird sound cannons in Orient, the year-round and seasonal populations seemed long ago to have accepted as a given that farming, while providing bucolic charm and scenic beauty, can be a noisy and smelly business. Ah, but there’s a new rub: What is farming and what isn’t?

Music certainly isn’t farming, but it seems to go well with wine tasting. Weddings aren’t farming, but as long as they take place on non-preserved land, government is OK with it.

Then there’s Satur Farms, which grows high-end produce for high-end restaurants. The complaint heard most often is that it’s more of a trucking depot than a farm. The Southold Planning Board answered that by ruling that enough crop-growing takes place on the Cutchogue property to make shipping a permitted supplemental activity. That leaves the question of whether the farm has made life across the street unbearable.

The neighbors say yes and have often and adamantly complained of dust, fumes and the sound of refrigerator trucks idling all-night. The farm fired back in a big way by slapping its critics with a $14 million lawsuit, claiming they’ve been subjected to undeserved and harmful criticism and are the target of a concerted effort to drive them out of business.

The farm’s attorney said the suit has already led to the removal of an offensive sign, which said the operation kills people. That message was certainly over the top. So, too, is seeking $14 million dollars from people who seem driven by desperation. Inevitable as it may be, litigation is also unfortunate. But assuming it’s more than just an intimidation tactic, the suit could bring this all to a head. We can imagine a judge doing more than deciding if the critics exceeded the bounds of free speech and caused measurable harm. The court could hear what sparked the dispute then determine if the criticism was warranted. It other words, it could cut both ways.

Is there no hope for a settlement?