01/16/14 8:02am
01/16/2014 8:02 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Aquebogue farmer Donald McKay cutting a field of hay on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO |  Aquebogue farmer Donald McKay cutting a field of hay on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

A study released by Suffolk County in the mid-1990s declared that the availability of farmland in Suffolk would continue declining in the coming years, following the suburban sprawl that had begun in the mid-20th century.

The deer population at the time was described as “burgeoning.”

The more some things change, the more they stay the same: Farm owners at the time cited high property taxes and labor costs as threats to their business models. And, as was the case last year, in 1996 Suffolk led the state in market value of agricultural products sold.

Seventeen years later, Suffolk is updating the 1996 Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan in an effort to look at the future of the North Fork’s most visible industry, one that countywide had an estimated $275 million in sales in 2013. The update to the 1996 study, officials say, will help plant the seeds for future growth while strengthening the county’s economy as a whole.

“With over 500 farms in the county, everybody would concur that this is an industry that needs to be protected,” said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “Not so much to preserve it, but to protect it.”

According to United States 2010 census estimates, only 0.3 percent of the county’s working population was employed in the agriculture, forestry, fishing/hunting and mining sectors. Nevertheless, the ripple effect of agriculture on the tourist industry and beyond had Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone calling for changes before the study has even been completed.

Partly as a result, late last year, Suffolk officials loosened regulations on farmland on which the county had purchased development rights, allowing activities previously banned on those parcels: U-pick operations, corn mazes, larger farm stands and processing facilities up to a certain size.

But the county still has more to do, and updating the plan remains vital to the goal of sustaining and growing the industry, officials say. Paid for with $50,000 from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the entire study must be completed by August, said county farmlands administrator August Ruckdeschel.

Mr. Ruckdeschel noted that the 1996 study didn’t even mention aquaculture. “That, to me, is very problematic,” he said.

Mr. Gergela said the 1996 study was “pretty boiler plate stuff,” mostly noting the history and status of various challenges facing the industry and offering little in the way of detailed public policy for sustaining farming over the long haul.

The study also predicted that only 10,000 acres of farmland would remain in the county if Suffolk continued to conserve land as it had been doing. In the 11 years following the study (the last available data was the 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census), with the assistance of publicly-funded conservation efforts, the availability of farmland has remained largely unchanged, dropping from 35,353 acres farmed in Suffolk in 1996 to 34,404 acres in 2007. That compares to over 123,000 acres of active farmland in 1950.

Earlier this month, Mr. Ruckdeschel presented to the Suffolk County Planning Commission the results of a survey that will be used as part of the study, and he’s expected to go over the results again during the two-day Long Island Agricultural Forum at Suffolk County Community College today and tomorrow. Over 140 farmers responded to the survey (89 from Riverhead and Southold), which covered topics ranging from the products they grow and the size of their farms to the challenges they face.

The survey showed that 62 of those farmers plan to increase the size of their farming operation within five years, while just 24 said they plan on scaling back.

Concerns facing farmers in Riverhead and Southold were nearly identical, the results showed: both ranked high production costs, the availability of farm labor and high fuel costs as their top three concerns. The 44 Riverhead farmers who responded also pointed to environmental regulations and property taxes as top concerns. In Southold, 45 farmers rated climate change, environmental regulations and prevalence of pests as other big concerns.

Aquebogue farmer Lyle Wells, who served on the Agricultural and Farmlands Protection Board at the time of the 1996 study, said that on the county level, one thing government could do to address his long-term concerns would be to increase its protection of farmland — namely by devoting a certain amount of dollars to preserving farmland.

“They could dedicate more funds to the preservation of farmland versus open space, [based] on the simple fact that farming is an economic driver,” Mr. Wells said. “If they had $100 million, at least dedicate $50 million to farmland and $50 million to open space. Don’t slant it one way or the other.”

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) pitched a similar proposal last year in the legislature, though it didn’t gain the body’s support. Since farmland and open space are financed by the same pool of dedicated funds, some legislators flatly said preserving farmland was unhelpful to their districts. Mr. Krupski hasn’t said for certain if he’ll take up the issue again.

In addition to the survey, the county has held focus groups with farmers and other stakeholders in the agricultural and environmental communities as part of updating the ag plan. And the county planning and economic development departments are working on updating an inventory of the 587 farms in the county.

One thing that stood out to Planning Commission chair David Colone was the median age of the farmers who responded to the survey: 55 years, or 15 years above the county’s median age as reported in the 2010 census. Mr. Colone said one thing he hopes to see in the final draft of the plan is a strategy to lure younger people to farming.

Planning Commission member Nicholas Planamento, representing Southold Town, echoed that sentiment, also noting that in order for the region as a whole to benefit from agriculture’s success, growth has to come in a way that allows the area’s charm to remain as well.

“While we welcome agritourism, people often forget that people live out here, and this is not just a tourist zone,” he said. He also pointed to last fall’s Taste North Fork — which offered free bus service between hamlets over one entire weekend to visit local businesses — as a possible model for future growth.

While that’s just one idea he sees benefitting both the agriculture community — from wineries to restaurants serving locally-sourced food — and the local economy at large, the plan due out later this year should offer more ideas for the future.

Such ideas are a start, he noted.

“Before you can learn to run, you walk,” Mr. Planamento said. “We’re way past crawling.”

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

12/06/12 9:00am
12/06/2012 9:00 AM

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | The Island Water Park property in Calverton

The Suffolk County Planning Commission recommended approval of Island Water Park’s proposal to tow water skiers in a man-made, groundwater-fed lake in Calverton during a commission meeting Wednesday afternoon in Hauppauge.

The commission vote had 11 members in favor, with Adrienne Esposito, who heads the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, opposed, and Glynis Berry, who owns the Art Sites gallery in Riverhead, abstaining.

Island Water Park bought the 42-acre site at the former Grumman property, now called the Enterprise Park at Calverton, from Riverhead Town in 2003 for $714,000 and originally planned to build two man-made lakes with liners in order to allow motor boats to tow water skiers.

That project received state and town approval but was shut down after the developers struck groundwater while excavating the lakes. They then revised the project to have boats water skiing in the groundwater table, but that proposal was controversial and became involved in litigation for several years, including litigation that pitted Riverhead Town against the state Pine Barrens Commission over which agency had jurisdiction over the project’s review.

Prior to purchasing the town land, Island Water Park had proposed to build the man-made lake off Youngs Avenue in Calverton, but that plan met with opposition from neighbors.

The litigation is now over, and Island Water Park has since revised its plans to eliminate the use of gas-powered motor boats in the groundwater.

Instead, the developers now plan to install an overhead tow system which would pull water skiers through the groundwater-fed lake.

The group’s site plan also calls for other water-related activities such as canoeing, kayaking, sailing, swimming and SCUBA diving, along with the construction of two buildings totaling 52,000 square feet that would house offices, a fitness center, a sport shop, a restaurant and snack bar, meeting rooms and a warehouse, according to the application.

There also would be outdoor space for things like volleyball, picnicking and hiking.

The developers have a state DEC excavating permit, and it the DEC has issued what’s called a negative declaration, meaning the project will not have a negative effect on the environment, Suffolk’s chief planner, Andrew Freleng said.

The DEC also said the project is far enough away from endangered tiger salamanders breeding ponds in Calverton so that it will not harm them.

The plan calls for construction of a concrete barrier along the south and west sides of the property to prevent the tiger salamanders from entering the site.

Ms. Esposito doubted the groundwater plan would work.

“Mark my words, they will come back within the next decade and say they need more water,” she said.

She feels they will eventually seek to pump groundwater into the lake to fill it, which she fears will deplete the groundwater.

Commission chairman Dave Calone said the DEC looked into these issues and gave them a permit.

“Right now, we have a hole in the ground,” he said, indicating that the proposed lake and recreation facility would be an improvement over that.

The project also meets the intent of the town’s Planned Recreational Park zoning district for the site, county officials said.

Ms. Berry said she would like more information about how the project went from a lake with a liner to protect the groundwater to a lake with no liner after the developer struck groundwater.

“I would rather they had a liner,” she said.

There was no one from Island Water Park present at Wednesday’s meeting.

“This will be one of the nicest places in the Northeast to go,” Island Water Park owner Eric Scott told the News-Review artier this year.

Island Water Park still needs site plan approval from Riverhead Town  to proceed with the project as planned.

The park also needs approvals from the inter-agency NYS Pine Barrens Commission.

tgannon@timesreview.com

10/13/12 2:00pm
10/13/2012 2:00 PM
Suffolk County Planning Commission, Mill Road, Riverhead

BARBARELLEN FILE KOCH PHOTO | Suffolk planning officials believe the soil on this property on Mill Road is more important than a development project.

Concordia Senior Communities’ application for a zoning change to allow an assisted living center on Mill Road will need four votes of the Riverhead Town Board — instead of the customary three — to gain approval.

That’s because the Suffolk County Planning Commission last week rejected a county planning staff report supporting the property’s new zoning and voted instead to urge rejection of the zone change proposal, saying the property’s fertile farmland should be preserved, as opposed to an assisted living complex getting built.

The commission makes referrals on certain town projects or zoning proposals.

When it recommends denial, the Town Board can override that recommendation with a majority-plus-one vote.

It was still unclear this week if the Town Board would have the four votes needed in favor of overturning the county commission’s ruling, as Councilman George Gabrielsen said he’s inclined to agree with the county commission.

Council members Jim Wooten and Jodi Giglio both said they want more info on how the county commission arrived at its decision before they decide.

Councilman John Dunleavy has been pushing for the new zone for several years, saying it’s a needed use in Riverhead, and Supervisor Sean Walter said he supports the zone change.

Melville-based Concordia is proposing an “assisted living retirement community and generic continuing care retirement community” for 25 acres on the east side of Mill Road, south of Middle Road and north of Home Depot.

The proposal calls for 89 assisted living dwelling units and 100 independent dwelling units for a total square footage of 225,000.
But because existing zoning disallowed such a facility anywhere in Riverhead Town, the town had to create a whole new zoning category in order to make the project possible.

That process took more than three years, but the Town Board adopted the new zone, which is a floating zone that can be approved on any site that meets the criteria in the zone (called Residence-Retirement Community), in September.

Concordia, under the application name Genrac Associates, has since filed an application to have the floating zone placed on the 25 acres, which are currently zoned Agricultural Protection Zone, but the Town Board has yet to schedule a public hearing on that application, or to vote on the proposed zone change.

The planning commission voted 9 to 4 to reject the proposed zone change.

Riverhead’s representative, Carl Gabrielsen, the councilman’s brother, voted with the majority.

But Adrienne Esposito, acting chair of the commission, said numerous commission members, including herself, had concerns about the fact that the site is in an Agricultural Protection Zone and contained prime agriculture soils, even though it hasn’t been farmed in many years.

“We had a very lengthy and detailed discussion about the value of lost agricultural land in the county and concluded that the value of the agricultural land was greater than the need to site that facility there,” Ms. Esposito said in an interview. “That the facility could be located somwhere else in the town. It’s easier to move a facility than it is to move prime agricultural lands … It’s prime agricultural soils and they’re not making any more of that.”

Supervisor Sean Walter said he was “kind of stunned” by the commission vote but felt the board will have enough votes to override it.
“I would assume the whole board is supporting it because the whole board supported it during its creation,” he said. “This is something that’s been beaten to death for two years while I was supervisor and it was beaten to death when Phil [Cardinale] was supervisor before me.”

Councilman Gabrielsen, who runs a farm in Jamesport, said he’s been “uncomfortable” with the project since “day one.”

“Farmers are taking two shots here,” he said. “They’re diluting the [transfer of development rights] program and they’re using land in the APZ.”

The Long Island Farm Bureau also had expressed concern about the proposed zone’s impact on the TDR program because it allows greater densities using the floating zone than other projects that might purchase development rights and preserved farmland in order to build to a certain size.

“We need to look at the county recommendations and how they came up with them,” Ms. Giglio said. “This has got to be looked at more closely.”

Mr. Wooten said he wanted to read the planning commission’s findings and the minutes of their meeting before making a decision. He said it would be wrong to assume the board has four votes to override the county commission’s ruling.

tgannon@timesreview.com