Guest Column: This 800-pound gorilla needs a leash

07/25/2014 8:00 AM |
FILE PHOTO | The state capitol in Albany.

FILE PHOTO | The state capitol in Albany.

“Anywhere he wants to.” That’s the punch line of the ancient joke about where an 800 -pound gorilla sits.

In our neighborhood, the big bully is Agriculture & Markets, the state agency tasked with “foster[ing] a competitive food and agriculture industry.” 

Six months ago, asked to comment on the Glass Greenhouse Farm Market, Save Main Road called it a “farm stand in name only.” We stand by that assessment.

Today, with the “farm stand” nearing a year in operation while waging a court battle with the town, we think it appropriate to look more closely at the involvement of A&M.

(Save Main Road has completed a much more detailed analysis, as an appeal to Governor Cuomo, which can be viewed in an attached PDF below)

Make no mistake—we’re glad A&M exists; they’ve done a great deal to keep farmers farming on Long Island. We generally applaud their work, but find A&M actions in this matter misguided.

UNSUPPORTED THREATS

Over the last five years, A&M officials — including the agency director — have sent a string of sternly worded and vaguely threatening letters to Riverhead Town’s supervisor. These officials made plain that the agency believes town action to enforce its zoning law “unreasonably restricts the farm operation,” and made clear they would take strong measures unless the town dropped its enforcement efforts.

To most of these missives, they attached copies of department guidelines or excerpts from Agriculture & Markets law. The documents were imposing, as were the Albany letterheads. Though we’re apolitical, we can understand how some folks at Town Hall got nervous at the prospect of this “gorilla” stomping on Riverhead.

The thing is, on close study, most A&M policies actually support the town’s position.

On local content: “The Department … generally would view requiring a predominance of on-farm products as reasonable.”

On selling processed foods: It’s OK “as long as the products that are prepared are composed primarily of ingredients produced on the farm.”

And on planning review: “Depending upon the size and scope of the retail facility or activity, greater regulation, such as site plan review, may be reasonable.”

Add to this the A&M guidebook, “Local Laws and Agricultural Districts,” in which one of the four case studies considers “whether a municipality may regulate farm stand size.” Answer: “The Department did not find the proposed restrictions to be per se violative of Section 305-a and roadside stands are not exempt from local regulation.”

Here’s the kicker: The farm stand in the A&M example was 150 square feet — a 10-by-15-foot shack, like so many dotting our roads. In sharp contrast, the Glass Greenhouse is 30 times that size.

Unfortunately, the weakness of their arguments has not stopped A&M from waving a big stick at Town Hall, warning again last month of impending action if the town doesn’t back off.

INFINITE START-UP AND STRANGE PRODUCTS

A&M’s current focus is on the town’s failure to allow enough “start-up” time for the farmer to increase his percentage of farm-produced merchandise. We get this. If a farmer doesn’t have enough corn to fill his shelves, he can bring in corn from other local growers. Not a problem.

Yet, we’re amazed A&M still refuses to say how much time should be allowed. “Start-up” can’t last forever.

But when the shelves are full — not with corn or other produce, but with candles from Massachusetts and canned soup from Oregon and oatmeal from Ireland and glassware from Mexico — the “start-up” argument fails. Based on our own observations, we think their merchandising area for all produce — including the Mexican grapes, California melons, Pennsylvania mushrooms and Delaware herbs we found on display this week — appears to be about 20 percent. They’re required to produce on the farm at least 60 percent of all goods sold. We suspect that will never happen.

We concluded months ago that this isn’t a farm stand. The news today is that A&M, for all its bluster, has offered no quantitative evidence to show that it is. And when you boil down the agency’s arguments, it seems clear that a farmer could be selling sporting goods and lingerie — and A&M would still block the town’s efforts to enforce code as “obstructing farm operations.” We think that’s wrong, which is why we’ve asked the governor to weigh in.

LOCAL IMPACT

My neighbor worries that if the Glass Greenhouse closes, employees will lose their jobs. An important concern, but it would be worse for employees of other vendors to lose their jobs due to unfair competition. Some area business owners have been hurt and want the same rules to apply to all. We support the town’s effort at equitable enforcement.

Glass Greenhouse owners protest: “We are not a commercial bakery as the town claims.” But when you have display cases nearly 20 feet long featuring fresh cookies and pastries, does it matter what you call your kitchen?

“It’s not a bakery.” “It’s a farm stand.” We say: Stop playing name games. It’s time to look under the hood at what’s really happening here and we intend to pressure Albany until they do.

Simms_headshotLarry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology. He is a director of savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

Save Main Road letter