Farming gets a say in Suffolk’s future — for good

04/25/2016 6:00 AM |

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Last Tuesday, during the same meeting at which they officially adopted a long-term agricultural stewardship plan, Suffolk County legislators also gave another nod to the vital role farming plays in the county’s economy. They mandated that the Suffolk County Planning Commission include one member from the agricultural community at all times.

Sponsored by South Fork Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), the legislation notes that “agriculture is an important interest in Suffolk County and its future liability depends, to some degree, on planning decisions made at the local and regional levels.”

Ms. Fleming, a first-term legislator, previously served on the Southampton Town Board and helped launch a fresh food project in Flanders during her tenure there. Explaining the importance of having an agricultural representative on the commission, she said, “From my perspective, we need to have folks on that commission who have a real hands-on understanding of these important economic anchors so we can not only hold onto these traditions, but move the economy forward in ways that are consistent with who we are as a people.”

Each of Suffolk County’s 10 towns is represented on the 15-member planning commission, which also has two village representatives — one for villages with more than 5,000 people and one for villages with fewer than 5,000 residents — and three at-large members. While the commission’s purview is limited to a degree, since towns control their own uses and site plan approval, local supermajorities are required at times to override a Planning Commission disapproval — though such instances are rare.

Riverhead’s current representative on the commission, Carl Gabrielsen, just happens to be a farmer. He said he was “thrilled” that someone else from his field would be on the commission after he leaves — whenever that happens to occur.

“I think it’s extremely important to have a farmer on there,” Mr. Gabrielsen said. “Agriculture is such a big part of the economy out here, and we have a pulse on what’s going on.”

Among New York State’s 62 counties, according to a 2012 Census of Agriculture conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Suffolk ranked third in total value of agricultural products sold. Nearly $240 million in product was sold that year. Suffolk had traditionally ranked first in the state, but a boom in the Greek yogurt industry has benefited upstate dairy farmers in recent years.

The amendment to the county charter doesn’t require that a farmer, per se, be on the board but rather calls for “an individual with a background or expertise in agriculture.” This could also, for example, be a retired farmer or someone involved with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“We didn’t want to say, ‘active farmer’ because active farmers might not have time,” said North Fork Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who is a farmer himself.

Planning Commission members are also required by charter to represent a variety of fields and backgrounds. For example, one member must represent a labor organization, another must have a background in workforce housing and another must represent a civic or environmental organization. Ms. Fleming’s legislation also designated a specific spot on the commission for a “representative of the business community.” Previously, the county charter called for a “representative of the real estate and/or business community.”

“Our primary focus was on agriculture,” Ms. Fleming said. “But when we really drilled down into it, quite frankly small businesspeople are different from those in real estate. So everyone agreed businesspeople should be broken out.”

The broader plan is to ensure that the voices of farmers are not lost in a county that’s changed rapidly over the past half-century. The Planning Commission also helped shape the agricultural stewardship plan update that was adopted last week, which saw broad changes compared to the county’s approach to agriculture in the past. For example, it aims to connect schools with farms and for the first time and mentions the aquaculture industry as a priority.

In addition, with more industry at the western end of the county than in the five East End towns, other representatives on the Planning Commission said the voice of a farmer will represents another prominent industry in the county.

“We need to have a well-balanced group of people,” said Nicholas Planamento, Southold Town’s commission representative, who also serves as the commission member from the real estate industry. “It really makes sense to have someone who is part of the agriculture industry.”

The commission’s chair, lawyer Jennifer Casey of Huntington, said with a laugh: “You don’t want a bunch of developers, or lawyers like me.”

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