Guest Spot: Short-term planning = long-term problems

09/18/2015 9:00 AM |

Though we’re in the midst of a hotly contested election, the problem of short-term thinking isn’t limited to candidates and their promise-the-moon campaigns.

Incumbents and appointed officials, especially those on our planning and zoning boards, must also be asked: Why won’t they plan beyond next week? Why don’t they look at the big picture?

The town is in the process of rubber-stamping cider house production tasting room and retail operations on Sound Avenue. Most of the objections have focused on traffic, safety and noise, but while those concerns are legitimate, the larger issue is harm to existing businesses — and damage to our reputation as an agricultural destination.

(Keep in mind that this project isn’t driven by a great business plan for cider, but rather a failed plan for the warehouse, which has not met expectations despite large public subsidies.)

If you give a mouse a cookie…

In 1974, the Zoning Board of Appeals granted a variance for the old Baiting Hollow potato chip factory to be used as a plumbing supply warehouse. One of the conditions of the variance was no retail operations. Another was “no process that may be considered manufacturing shall be allowed.”

The prohibitions against retail and manufacturing were affirmed by subsequent ZBA decisions, including in 2000.

In 2012, the ZBA declared that cutting, re-packing and bar-coding is not manufacturing, and “agricultural processing” commenced.

They’ve now decided that: A) crushing apples, fermenting the juice, and bottling it on a production line is not manufacturing, and B) retail tasting and sale of this cider — plus an unlimited selection of other non-local products — is an accessory use to agricultural processing.

The dictionary says manufacturing is “to make from raw materials by hand or by machinery,” and processing is “a continuous operation or treatment especially in manufacture.” Only in Riverhead is agricultural raw materials processing NOT manufacturing.

This means that, if you push the right buttons, the town will apply whatever tortured logic it takes to let you build anything, anywhere.

This is not agritourism. Literally.

New York’s Agricultural and Markets law says “agricultural tourism means activities conducted by a farmer on-farm for the enjoyment or education of the public, which primarily promote the sale, marketing, production, harvesting or use of the products of the farm …”

“By a farmer on-farm.” The cider house is not owned by farmers, is not on a farm, and has the same connection to apple farming that a ketchup factory has to tomato growers. The facility is an industrial production line with a tasting room and store, housed in a huge warehouse. (The bottling, tasting and retail portion of the building will be larger than the National Guard Armory on Route 58.)

The state senator who wrote New York’s agritourism law said: “Diversifying farm operations with a tourism component has proven profitable for many farmers in New York and other states. It helps them keep their land in farming …”

You can’t diversify operations on a farm that doesn’t exist.

The town has sued Glass Greenhouse, a “farm stand” that sells a tiny percent of local produce and manufactured goods from all over, yet our legislators and planners now enable a new retail business — on an ag site where retail has been banned for 40 years — with no concern about local content. If they’re helping to keep land in farming, it’s not around here.

Authenticity is key.

Would we be Long Island Wine Country if we only had bottling operations that convert grape juice trucked in from other markets? Of course not. People come for the vineyards; without them there would be no tasting rooms, no events, and no tourist dollars for the wineries or the many ancillary businesses that thrive on this traffic.

People come to see and touch and buy produce —grapes, corn, pumpkins and lavender — in the fields where it’s grown. Do we have apples? Sure. I buy mine and fill growlers of local cider at Woodside Orchards … where they sometimes ration cider for lack of apples to meet their own demand, let alone supply a commercial mill.

New York is the No. 2 apple-producing state in the country … But almost none of the apples are grown on Long Island [see below].

If we really want to help farmers keep farming, we need to get serious about local content requirements at farm stands. If our rural corridors become an outdoor version of the Whole Foods produce aisle, selling stuff grown elsewhere, agritourism will dry up.

Cider House claims it will promote North Fork agriculture while serving cider made from upstate apples. How will they do this? The more honest they are about their product’s origin, the fewer customers they’ll attract.

I’ve talked to farmers and winemakers who agree fake agritourism will hurt our region’s reputation and damage our long-term success. Yet the Long Island Farm Bureau, which runs the great “Grown on Long Island” campaign, and the Long Island Wine Council support Cider House and its non-local product. I’ve had trouble learning why, but note that both do business with Grapes and Greens, in which the cider operation will be housed.

Harming established farmers.

Through authentic farm operations, the North fork has built a large stream of agritourists. They comprise a critical component of our economy … which Cider House puts at risk in two ways.

First — tourists will be diverted from wine to cider. While cider may attract customers on its own, it will also cannibalize wineries, which grow their own local crops. Where special approval is needed, the town must stop greenlighting new businesses without considering the impact to those already here.

Second — the image of Wine Country as an agritourism destination will be diminished. The more “faux farm” businesses we allow, the dimmer our agricultural future. Real farmers stay true to the simple practice of selling what they grow.

A Southold Town planner who lives in Riverhead said it best, warning the Planning Board that this project will bring “irreversible erosion of the town’s bona fide agricultural, zoning regulation and bucolic character.” Yet our officials — elected and appointed — keep marching forward as though this was a done deal the day the application was submitted.

Cider House will not be an authentic attraction, but rather a leech on the legitimate efforts of local farmers, profiting from the illusion that it’s an integral part of the farm community and experience. If you care about the long-term future of our economy and North Fork farming, tell the Town Board — which not only makes our laws, but appoints the planning and zoning boards which interpret it — that they’re short-sighted and on the wrong path.

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.

Apples: As local as you think?

• Where does New York rank in apple production? New York is the second largest apple-producing state in the United States.

• Where are the majority of apples grown? Apples are grown on 51,097 bearing acres in six major production districts throughout the entire state: Champlain Valley, Eastern Hudson Valley, Western Hudson Valley, Central, Lake Country, Niagara Frontier.

• Where are the other major apple-producing counties? Major apple-producing counties are: Wayne, Ulster, Orleans, Niagara, Clinton, Columbia, Monroe, Orange, Onondaga and Dutchess. (Source: NYS Horticultural Society)

COMPILED BY LARRY SIMMS

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