Suffolk drafting law to help farmers sidestep court ruling

Suffolk County farmland press conference
Jeff Rottkamp, owner of Fox Hollow Farm in Baiting Hollow, had been preparing to join Suffolk County’s farmland preservation program. But those plans changed in September, when a New York State Supreme Court judge deemed development on protected farmland illegal.

The county’s program, which was the first of its kind when it was established in 1974, offers property owners money in exchange for a legally binding agreement stating the land won’t be developed. Mr. Rottkamp had hoped to participate in the county’s farmland preservation program, but ultimately decided against it because he believes the latest ruling would prevent him from building structures he may need for operations, like a farm stand, greenhouse and storage buildings.

“With the rules and restrictions people have put on farmers and agriculture, I’m uncertain as to where we’re going to be in the future,” said Mr. Rottkamp, whose family has been farming on Long Island since the 1840s.

Now, with the county in the midst of appealing Justice Thomas Whelan’s decision, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is proposing a law that would sidestep the ruling. If approved, the legislation would allow farmers to build farm stands and other related structures on preserved land without permits.

During a Friday press conference at Mr. Rottkamp’s farm, Mr. Bellone called the court ruling a “severe blow” to the agriculture industry. Also in attendance were representatives from Long Island Farm Bureau, Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, Long Island Wine Council, Martha Clara Vineyards and Peconic Land Trust.

“If the government continues to do things that make it difficult, if not impossible, to operate a farm as a business, we’re not going to have farms anymore,” Mr. Bellone said, stressing that agriculture must be preserved.

“This is the last stand,” the county executive said. “We’re either going to have an agricultural industry — thriving, successful — or we’re not. There’s nowhere else to go.”

North Fork Legislator Al Krupski, who co-sponsored Mr. Bellone’s bill and attended the press conference, said in an interview that the need for structures has changed as the agricultural industry has progressed.

“We’ve got almost 400 years of recorded history of agriculture here and it keeps changing,” said Mr. Krupski, who is also a farmer.“It’s an evolving industry. It’s an evolving lifestyle.”

Having permission to build structures on preserved land is essential for the continued operation of farms, he said, adding that the farmland preservation program is in danger if farmers don’t feel confident they’ll be able to continue to farm.

“Let’s suppose 20 years from now our operation changes and we sell some land and someone wants to grow hops or wine or grapes or a horse farm,” Mr. Rottkamp said. “You can’t put up the fences. You can’t put up the horse [structures]. You won’t have a customer for your land. You won’t be able to do anything.”

Justice Whelan’s decision was a response to a lawsuit the Long Island Pine Barrens Society brought against the county. In the suit, the organization claimed development should not be allowed  on preserved farms where public funds were used to purchase development rights.

Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper said in an interview that Mr. Bellone’s proposed law will “backfire” and that the current farmland preservation legislation can only be changed by voters at a public referendum.

“If the county is genuinely eager to allow farmers to do something that’s not permitted today on [preserved] farmland, all they need to do is go back and ask the voters if it’s okay to change it,” Mr. Amper said. He added temporary structures, like a hoop house and deer fencing, have always been permitted under the current law.

However, there is no consensus between Mr. Amper and county officials on what’s currently allowed to be temporarily built on preserved farmland.

“The judge’s ruling was very unclear, and that’s what makes it so difficult to try to sort through, and that’s what I think brings a lot of the uncertainty to the program going forward,” Mr. Krupski said. 

South Fork Legislator Bridget Fleming, who also co-sponsored the bill, said she hopes the county’s appeal will clarify Justice Whelan’s decision.

In addition, she said, the county’s proposed legislation spells out specific practices for agriculture usages — although that list may be up for debate as industry members weigh in on what they need in order to operate.

“You can’t have a farm without deer fencing,” Ms. Fleming said. “You can’t have a farm without storage facilities. You can’t have a farm without irrigation. Those are listed as some of the things that you have to allow on even preserved farmland.”

The county’s next step is to hold a public hearing Feb. 7 to discuss the bill, Mr. Krupski said.

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Photo: Jeff Rottkamp at a press conference with Suffolk County officials Friday at his Baiting Hollow farm. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)