Proposed $5M bond could help preserve farmland

A proposed $5 million farmland bond may give a boost to farmers looking to sell land and simultaneously allow Southold Town to preserve their property.

The Town Board is considering establishing the bond, which would allow the town to buy farmland outright and retain the development rights, which would greatly reduce the purchase price of the land. This will make it less costly for other farmers to purchase the land for ongoing agriculture. 

“It gives farmers some access for expansion, maybe if there’s a startup,” Supervisor Scott Russell said at a work session Tuesday.

Currently, the town cannot resell land purchased for preservation. 

The supervisor said the bond could help in situations where farmland must be sold as a result of a divorce or estate dispute, or where differences of opinion arise.

According to Mr. Russell, a similar bond approved by voters in 2007 enabled the town purchase 29 acres of a Southold farm in 2010. The town used $1.8 million from the Community Preservation Fund to purchase the development rights, and used the farmland bond to purchase the property outright for $822,500. “It worked very well,” he said.

Town comptroller Kristie Hansen-Hightower said the town can authorize bonding $5 million but isn’t required to borrow the full amount all at once. “[The town] can borrow as sales come up so you aren’t paying debt service on money you haven’t used yet,” she said Tuesday.

During a work session, the proposal elicited support from Town Board members. “It gives another avenue for farmers to be able to operate their business,” Councilwoman Jill Doherty said.

Councilman Bill Ruland emphasized the importance of the flexibility it would give both the town and new farmers. He said it’s important for the town to have the financing in place as future “key parcels” come up for sale.

With development rights intact, Mr. Ruland said, farmland can sell for upwards of $100,000 per acre. Stripping the land of development rights greatly reduces the cost, he said, and can ensure the land continues to be used for agriculture.

“What we do today is going to have a direct impact on what happens tomorrow,” Mr. Ruland said, expressing concern over how the next generation will be able to farm. “I’m passionate about this because I’ve lived my whole life doing this and I can see that the younger people are struggling, because if you’re going to grow anything, you’ve got to have land.”

He said he supports the measure and would support asking voters to weigh in at the polls.

The supervisor said the board would look into the timeline for getting it on the November ballot. “I have no reason to think that voters wouldn’t support it,” he said. “They’ve always voted overwhelmingly for open space and farmland.”