Dr. Ralph Caselnova admits he was looking for “open space” when he and his wife, Catherine, bought 16 acres north of Main Road in Orient in 1998.
The couple built a house on the non-farmland portion of the property and, by 2001, had begun growing grapes, fruit trees and vegetables. Dr. Caselnova learned to make wine from “reading a few books,” along with the help of Alice Wise of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.
“I have a half-acre in grapes, about 300 grape plants,” said Dr. Caselnova, a kidney specialist with an office in Nassau County. “Last year, I had 950 pounds of grapes, which produced 60 gallons of juice.”
But now, nearly two decades after buying his property, Dr. Caselnova faces an uncertain future thanks to a 2013 tweak in a county law that will force him to become a commercially operating farm.
If he doesn’t comply, Dr. Caselnova could face hefty fines. He may even have to sell his property.
“I’m a physician, how can I do that?” Dr. Caselnova said of having to transform his property into a commercial farm. “And what if I’m not in the financial position to hire someone to develop this as a farm? Would they take my land away from me?”
When Dr. Caselnova purchased the land, it was open and undeveloped. The development rights on 12 of the 16 acres had been sold to the county, meaning it could never be developed as anything other than farmland. At that time, the land hadn’t been farmed since the 1980s.
In recent years, Dr. Caselnova has grown a wide array of vegetables and fruits, from tomatoes to string beans to zucchini. He also has peach, apple, cherry and pear trees. He’ll often give away some of the wine, fruit and produce he grows, he said.
It may seem like farming, but it’s not to the standard Suffolk County has set.
On Feb. 20, 2015, Dr. Caselnova received a letter from Suffolk County planning director Sarah Lansdale saying he was not in compliance with Chapter 8, which is the section of county law that deals with farmland development rights.
Under that program, farmland owners can sell the development rights of their property and continue to own the land. They just can’t use it for anything other than farming.
The program, which was created in 1974, has been credited with preserving more than 10,000 acres of farmland since its inception.
The letter said Dr. Caselnova wasn’t in compliance with county law because “this parcel in not engaged in commercial agricultural production.”
In November 2013, the county made a number of amendments to Chapter 8. One change dealt with land on which the development rights had been sold so that the land could remain agricultural.
That means it must be a commercially operating farm.
“Beginning in January 2014, no owner shall leave agricultural land uncultivated and not engage in agricultural production or a commercial horse board operation and/or commercial equine operation, for more than two years,” the letter states.
And that doesn’t just mean Dr. Caselnova has to charge a fee for his wines, fruit or produce.
During a site visit to the property by Andrew Amakawa, a research technician with the county division of planning and environment, Dr. Caselnova said he was told that a tree buffer he has toward the south end of the property would have to be cleared and used as a farm.
“This is all farmland,” Dr. Caselnova said. “So if they want all these 12 acres to be farmland, you picture 12 acres of flat land that’s tilled and cultivated. That means all these trees have to come down. I don’t want to take these trees down.”
Lauretta Fischer, chief environmental analyst in the county division of planning and environment, said the county has been in discussions with Dr. Caselnova.
“They don’t necessarily have to cut down the trees if they are going to use the areas of the trees for some kind of agricultural production,” said Ms. Fischer, who is also supervisor of the county’s open space and farmland protection division. “But if they’re going to put crops down or some kind of grapes, obviously, that’s going to have to happen.”
The trees can be used to protect crops against wind or sea spray, she said.
The Caselnovas are not yet in violation because they have two years from the date of the letter to comply, Ms. Fischer said.
The county farmland development rights program always said the land needs to be used for commercial agricultural production, but the 2013 amendment was the first time an enforcement component was added to the law, she said.
Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), himself a farmer, said the county has only sent out three such letters, including the one to Dr. Caselnova.
A letter also went out to Pollio Farm on Route 48 in Mattituck, where municipal yard waste had been dumped and which is now being investigated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The third letter went to a farmer in East Hampton Town, who built a sump on protected farmland, which is not permitted.
Mr. Krupski said people should know what they’re getting into when they agree to join the farmland protection program. The use of protected farmland as private lawns for wealthy homeowners is something that’s been a concern on the South Fork, he said.
“When you take the money and the easements, you sign a paper saying these are the conditions,” he said. “It’s a legally binding document, and it’s public money, so you really have to do what you’re supposed to do. The whole purpose of the farmland preservation program is to preserve productive soils for agriculture.”
Ms. Fischer said the enforcement program is in its infancy and more cases will likely emerge. She said there are more than the three letters Mr. Krupski mentioned.
One case involved Madonna, whose Bridgehampton farmland was operating outside the rules of the program. Madonna has since agreed to change the use of the property to a nursery, which complies with the farmland program, Ms. Fischer said.
Being designated as a commercially operating farm is based on New York State Agriculture and Markets law. The number of required annual sales depends on the amount of acreage, she said.
Dr. Caselnova said he was told verbally there could be fines of up to $5,000 per day.
“That’s pretty ominous,” he said. “That made me tremble in my boots.”
Ms. Fischer said the courts would determine the fines. The letter from Ms. Lansdale says the county “reserves the right to pursue any and all legal and equitable remedies, including damages and restoration costs.”
Ms. Fischer said the Peconic Land Trust has been working on a program that tries to match owners of farmland with farmers. Under the program, a landowner would only have to lease the farm to an active farmer and wouldn’t have to get involved in running the farm.
“Certainly he could sell the farm if he feels it’s something he has to do,” Ms. Fischer said of Dr. Caselnova’s situation.
There is no program to convert preserved farmland to open space, she said, and that’s not something the county would want, either.
“We want to try and encourage and support farming,” she said. “We don’t want to lose farmland.”
Chris Baiz, the chairman of Southold Town’s agriculture advisory committee and the owner of The Old Field Vineyards in Southold, said the requirements are akin to taking someone’s land.
“Agricultural economics are so marginal, if somebody wants to farm a piece of property and lose money at it, he’s entitled to do that,” Mr. Baiz said. “If the market says this is not the time to farm, then let it lie fallow. They [the county] are not the ones that have to make a living off it.”
When told Dr. Caselnova may have to cut down trees, Mr. Baiz replied, “You’re kidding me. You’re making the land almost worthless when you include a condition that says they have to either lose money one way or lose money the other way. It’s a complete taking of property rights.”
Mr. Baiz said eastern Long Island has the most expensive farmland in the country.
Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said it’s important for preserved farmland to actually be farmed as opposed to becoming a lawn on a private estate.
“The purpose is to have a working farmlands program, meaning that it has to be in production,” Mr. Carpenter said. “He shouldn’t have bought the land with the development rights sold if he had no intention of farming it.”
Dr. Caselnova said he was never told he had to cultivate the farmland when he purchased the property.
“That just came about in 2013,” he said. “There was no mention of putting it under cultivation until then.”