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Farmers urge county to pass law to sidestep court ruling

Suffolk farmers

More than a dozen farmers, most from the East End, spoke at a Tuesday public hearing in Hauppauge in support of a proposed Suffolk County law that would sidestep a New York State Supreme Court ruling that deems development on protected farmland illegal.

Farmers said Justice Thomas Whelan’s decision leaves them in limbo as to whether they can erect certain structures, such as farm stands, on land for which development rights have been sold as part of the county’s farmland preservation effort. The county is appealing Justice Whelan’s decision.

Norman “Sam” McCullough, who owns a preserved farm, is vineyard manager for Lenz Winery in Peconic and is vice-chair of Southold Town’s land preservation committee, said the PDR program’s hands are tied by the ruling because it prohibits the county’s farmland select committee from issuing permits for structures.

“At this point now it’s basically impossible for a farmer to put any sort of thing that is defined as a structure on a farm,” Mr. McCullough said. “No barns to store equipment, no barns to store produce, fences; all these things that under the current code require a permit from the farmland select committee can’t be issued and can’t be done because the committee is enjoined from issuing permits. It’s a Catch-22.”

If passed, the local law, which is sponsored by East End legislators Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), would circumvent the state Supreme Court ruling and allow farmers to build farm-related structures on preserved land without permits. Both legislators have said keeping the PDR program alive will help prevent overdevelopment of county land and allow agriculture to survive.

The law considers construction of farm stands and processing facilities “standard agricultural practices reasonable, necessary and appropriate” for farm operations. Also covered by the proposed law would be installation of deer fencing and buildings such as barns, sheds and greenhouses.

Past and present employees of Cornell Cooperative Extension, as well as a member of the farmland select committee, also showed their support for the law.

Laurel farmer Karl Novak, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said one issue that needs to be addressed is an understanding of Justice Whelan’s decision. He said the farm bureau and its partner organizations have consulted lawyers on the ruling but could not get a consensus, so until the county determines what is allowed under the ruling and passes its own law, farmers are left without clarity.

“To this day we have not gotten two attorneys to agree or interpret that decision to say, ‘Yes, you can do this’ or ‘No, you can’t do that,’” Mr. Novak said. “That is the issue.”

Farmers said they hope the county law be passed before the growing season begins. Other speakers said they were hesitant to apply for the PDR program if it remained unclear. Aquebogue hazelnut grower Peter Haarmann, who said he has not sold the development rights to his land, said the layers of bureaucracy and uncertainty are a “disincentive.”

“People gotta know what the rules are to this game or else you’ll put us all out of business,” Mr. Haarmann said after asking the Legislature to consider the approaching growing season and pass the law as quickly as possible.

Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper was the only speaker at the public hearing against the proposed law. He reiterated his position that the county should have gone back to the public with a referendum, as it did in 2007, and ask them what they would approve today.

The PDR program offers property owners money in exchange for a legally binding agreement stating the land won’t be developed.

“What they can’t do is take money from their neighbors for not developing the land and then go develop it,” Mr. Amper said, adding that he didn’t think the judge’s decision prohibited temporary structures like farm stands or deer fencing.

Mr. Krupski and Ms. Fleming asked that the public hearing, which lasted more than two hours, go into recess so the Legislature could consider the speakers’ statements.

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Photo: Laurel farmer and Long Island Farm Bureau president Karl Novak addressing Suffolk lawmakers on Tuesday. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)