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Southold Town Board adopts code change to allow agricultural processing on farms

The Southold Town Board unanimously adopted a local law Tuesday night amending the town code to permit the accessory use of processing agricultural products. The decision came after a heated public hearing last month, a typo that delayed the vote and rallying on part of local farmers.

The amendment enables farmers to turn their crops into marketable foods on their property. They may produce baked goods, cultivate shellfish and turn berries into jams and jellies, potatoes into potato chips, tomatoes into salsa and process numerous other crops. It’s limited to parcels containing a “bona fide” farm operation.

Before the vote, the board opened the floor to public comment.

Kathryn Sepenoski of Sep’s Farms in East Marion fought back tears as she said Tuesday was her 36th anniversary as a farmer.

“The emblem that sits on [the seal of] Suffolk County is a plow,” she said. “The image on the town website is a tractor. Tractors are now sitting on the corners of properties as monuments because it is what’s going to happen if you don’t support us. We will just be statues sitting on lawns.”

Ms. Sepenoski and others argued against opponents’ points that the town’s water use will increase, that farmers are leaving behind large carbon footprints and that accessory-use buildings will limit scenic vistas.

Chris Baiz, chairman of the town’s agricultural advisory committee and co-owner of The Old Field vineyards in Southold, advocated for the Right to Farm law, outlined in the town’s Farmland Bill of Rights.

“It isn’t ‘You have the right to farm if I say so.’ It’s the Right to Farm law,” Mr. Baiz said. “When people come up and say, ‘Oh, I love farming, I love the farmers, but …’ You don’t love the farmers and you don’t love farming. It’s conditional. Farming is all-in. It’s not a conditional business.”

Multi-generational farmers supported the amendment.

Tom Wickham, owner of Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, said his family has been processing everything from apple cider to doughnuts and other baked goods for over 50 years. The Wickhams make their cider on-site using an apple press, but do not have a separate accessory building.

“We are well regulated by the New York State Department of [Agriculture] and Markets, and, in fact, I have a license to do what I’m doing,” Mr. Wickham said in a phone interview. “[The permits] cost a significant amount of money and we’re inspected at least once or twice a year … I think the public is well-protected and I don’t think we have anything to fear from more processing of agricultural products in this town.”

The amendment specifies that the square footage of any agricultural building may not exceed 1.5% of the total parcel size and that at least 66% of the agricultural products being processed must be grown on-site. The resolution also says that buildings of 3,000 square feet or less need not undergo site plan review and states that all applications will be entitled to expedited processing.

The Long Island Farm Bureau has been supportive of the legislation.

Robert Carpenter, administrative director at LIFB, said in a phone interview that farmers who wholesale their crops to distributors are in a market that has turned out not to be economically viable.

Farms today, he said, need some sort of valued-added processing in order to help sustain profitability, which would, in effect, keep farms in business and protect town land.

“Farmers are overregulated,” he said, “and overregulated in every way, shape and form from every type of government agency there is.”

Mr. Carpenter commended the town and its agricultural advisory committee for the work they have done to weigh demands and comments.

Councilman James Dinizio Jr. said just before voting that this law does not go far enough.

Councilman Bob Ghosio said, “We have to remember that although the romantic notion of the friendly farmer is a wonderful notion to have … they are a business. If, all of a sudden, the farmers went away and we put houses up, there’d be an awful lot of business in Southold that would go in the way of the wind. And again, their failure will only trickle down to everybody else in town, including those who enjoy living here because of our agricultural history.”

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