Guest Spot: Battle over proposed barn continues

Southold Town’s purchase of development rights (PDR) program was created to encourage agriculture, save farmland from residential development, provide capital to farmers and preserve the rural character of the North Fork. So far, it’s been a success. But now, the intent to help farmers appears to have become subject to interpretation.

There is an unusual case before the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the outcome is expected to be announced at the April 6 public meeting. It will affect not only North Fork Viticultural Services, the grape grower in question, but may adversely impact all existing and future agricultural storage buildings, aka barns, on development rights sold (DRS) land — and jeopardize the PDR program itself. At stake is the right to build barns on DRS land, which is in the Southold Town code (Chapter 70: Agricultural Lands Preservation). There’s already talk that an unfavorable outcome may discourage farmers from selling development rights, as they may in the future be denied a barn that suits their needs. Start-up agricultural businesses may be unwilling to buy DRS land for the same reason. Also in question is the de facto right to operate existing barns on DRS land, if a farmer also leases or manages other parcels, or provides services or equipment to other farmers. Many growers of wine grapes, fruits and vegetables, nursery stock and sod work out of barns on DRS land.

North Fork Viticultural Services is owned by my partner Bill Ackermann; I also work with the company. NFVS leases, owns and manages vineyards, and provides consulting services. Last year, it bought a 22-acre DRS farm on Alvah’s Lane in Cutchogue, which has eight acres of grapevines and three fields under development as cattle pasture. The Southold Town DRS deed from 1999 specifically cites the language now in Chapter 70, and NFVS invested in this land on the understanding that it has the right to build a barn.

The town’s land preservation committee is charged with overseeing the PDR program and is meant to have the authority to determine whether a proposed plan is legitimately agricultural (Ch. 70-5B). The committee “serves as the review board for the granting of permits for the construction … of structures” on DRS land. Ch. 70 specifically lists activities permitted on DRS land, including “equipment storage buildings.” Nowhere does it limit size; lot allowances are already in the zoning code. Nor does it say a barn can only serve the DRS parcel it stands on. This distinction is important; a stricter category of land, Open Space, is limited in this way (Ch. 185). DRS agricultural land is not Open Space.

NFVS submitted information about its activities and a first iteration of a proposed barn to the LPC, and its plan was approved nearly one year ago. For reasons of road safety and drainage, the proposed barn was moved; this second iteration submitted to the Planning Board. This is where it gets weird. A group of non-farming neighbors objected at the public hearing, calling the proposed barn an “industrial agricultural warehouse” and claiming NFVS’s operations are not legitimate farming. One person literally cited horse-drawn ploughs; another played a recording of owls.

The Planning Board asked the ZBA for an interpretation “as to whether agricultural equipment storage for a vineyard management operation qualifies as a permitted agricultural storage use.” Common sense might suggest the answer without lengthy consideration. In any case, this question is the purview of the LPC, which already made its decision. According to the code, the ZBA exists “to hear and decide appeals and requests for variances,” not judge the degree to which a business qualifies as agriculture.

Fortunately, Leslie Kanes Weisman, chair of the ZBA, went on record at the hearing on March 2, saying “there is no question” that NFVS’s activities are agriculture. But the discussion went to a wider interpretation of Ch. 70. Can a barn on DRS land contain equipment that is used both off and on the subject parcel, or is that somehow against the intent of the DRS program? In other words, is a farmer who drives a tractor out of a DRS barn to another field operating lawfully? Are barn dimensions to be based on something other than allowed lot coverage? Yet the ZBA may not actually have this power to interpretively create additions to the code and act upon them, as it is not a policy-making entity.

The responsibilities of the LPC, the Planning Board and the ZBA are entangled, and the powers of the LPC somehow diminished. I believe the committee is doing its best to work with a vague code. This issue should be resolved by the Town Board, and the agricultural advisory committee has already recommended an updated definition of agriculture. Future changes, however, should not apply retroactively, and should not hold up NFVS’s planning process. NFVS does not want the financial hardship of waiting another year to build a barn or buying another property with full development rights. NFVS is a respected member of the grape-growing industry and has done a great job bringing this long-neglected farm back into production. It is exactly the type of home-grown agricultural business the DRS program is meant to encourage, and DRS parcels are the perfect places for NFVS and other small, modern agricultural businesses to call home.

Top photo: North Fork Viticultural Services in Cutchogue. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Gwendolen Groocock is a freelance journalist and former Suffolk Times staff writer.