Guest column: Greenhouse throwing stones at town code

01/01/2014 5:00 PM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market on Main Road in Jamesport opened to the public in October.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market on Main Road in Jamesport opened to the public in October.

What is a farm stand? It’s such a simple question, yet one loaded with meaning and innuendo. After asking five people (including farmers) and getting five different answers, I thought it best to consult an authoritative source: Agriculture & Markets, the agency that regulates and protects the activities of farmers statewide. What I found was surprising.

A definition of “farm market” is easy to locate, and it’s just as easy to see it doesn’t apply to the business Save Main Road has been asked to comment on: The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market. A “farm market” in New York showcases and sells goods from two or more farmers. Such a market is also typically located on municipal land. When a dozen growers gather in the parking lot along the river downtown to sell their produce to the public, that’s a “farm market.” The Glass Greenhouse store, in our opinion, is not.

About “farm stands,” Ag & Markets has nothing to say. Literally. They have no rules and no policy that define or govern retail operations conducted by a single farm on its own land. When I spoke to an Ag & Markets official to confirm what their law seemed to indicate, she confirmed they defer to town code on this issue.

Riverhead code says little. A paragraph tucked into zoning law restricts farm retailing by what’s called merchandising area: at least 60 percent of the space must be devoted to selling goods grown on the farm where the stand is located. Save Main Road thinks neighboring Southold’s code, which goes into far greater detail on this point, has much to offer; we plan to work with Riverhead officials to improve our code.

Still, the letter and spirit of existing Riverhead farm stand code can be applied in this situation.

Two things concern us: what the law says and the intent of the owner.

THE LAW

Letters in our possession from Ag and Markets suggest Glass Greenhouse owners asked the agency to intercede with the town so they could bypass the site planning and permitting process. (We think that’s how the market got built.) While FOIL research is underway, it’s already clear Ag & Markets argued strongly that routine application of town rules and procedures would “unreasonably restrict the farm operation.” We take issue with this interpretation.

One reason we’re concerned is that Ag & Markets alternates between calling the new Glass Greenhouse operation a “farm stand” and a “farm market” in ways we think facile and inappropriate. The agency shouldn’t say it’s a “proposed farm market” when, by their own definition, it’s not. The requirement that produce from multiple New York farms be presented appears absolute. (Packaged Arizona tomatoes we saw on display don’t count, nor does other imported produce.) We haven’t heard Glass Greenhouse mention the involvement of any other farms.

Additionally, state law heavily emphasizes the public, not private, nature of these markets. An example is that Ag & Markets may provide technical assistance for developing and improving farmers’ markets only to public and private “agencies,” not to individual farmers.

Ag & Markets relied on the only definition of “farm market” in Riverhead town code 108-56, which deals with signs, despite the fact that the definition is “as used in this section,” meaning it applies only to signs.

We think Ag & Markets’ reasoning is similarly weak throughout the documents.

We’re much more disturbed that Ag & Markets failed even to mention the “60 percent rule.” That rule is the clearest statement of purpose in current Riverhead code as to what farm stands may sell, and it appears to have been wholly disregarded.

To apply the rule, look at the store’s “merchandising area” only. For discussion, disregard the entire bakery (which we think is inappropriate and not allowed in a farm stand, and which appears to comprise 20 percent or more of the structure). We believe even a casual observer would conclude the total amount of farm produce offered in the new Glass Greenhouse retail space falls far short of the 60 percent threshold.

OWNER’S INTENT

According to Ag & Markets, the Glass Greenhouse says they need the new facility to provide cooler space to market produce and additionally to sell fresh honey, eggs and free-range chickens. If that were all the new facility sold, there would be no issues.

Walking through as a consumer, I saw a gelato counter 12 feet long (all estimates by my eye), a cheese counter almost as big, 10 feet of candles, 20 feet of displayed bakery goods and rack after rack of manufactured foods and household items from a dozen or more states. My guess is that all actual produce displayed totaled well under 20 percent of the floor area (excluding bakery production).

The new “stand” is 4,500 square feet. We know a local farmer who raises 1,000 laying chickens and sells their eggs — together with other farm produce — in a farm stand of 150 square feet. We’d be surprised if there are enough chickens, eggs and honey in all of Riverhead to make a dent in a 4,500-square-foot farm stand.

Save Main Road doubts that a farm stand of this size, however attractive and well-built, can be profitable if 60 percent of its retail area displays the off-season greenhouse products, chickens, eggs and honey that Ag & Markets claims are the intended items for sale. That said, if and when the owner achieves that critical measure of content, it should be allowed to operate.

Today, it seems to us an ersatz market, a “farm stand” in name only. We don’t think an upscale deli belongs in the Rural Corridor, and we support the town in its opposition.

My favorite North Fork slogan is: “We have the right to remain rural.” Save Main Road is committed to helping farms and farmers, and we enthusiastically support “real” farm stands. This one doesn’t qualify.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a director of savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

He also serves on the town’s Code Revision committee.