Suffolk officials are taking legislative action to continue the county’s farmland preservation program — and protect agriculture — following what they call a devastating blow struck by a State Supreme Court ruling last year.
A State Supreme Court judge in September threw out county laws passed in 2010 and 2013 that allowed farmers to build farm stands, greenhouses, barns and processing facilities on land from which the development rights had been purchased under the county’s farmland preservation program.
The laws empowered an appointed committee to grant special-use permits and hardship exemptions for the development.
The L.I. Pine Barrens Society brought the lawsuit challenging the 2010 and 2013 amendments to the original program, established more than 40 years ago.
State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan agreed with the Pine Barrens Society that the amendments went beyond the intent of the referendum approved by voters in allowing “structures” that were a “substantial intrusion” on public rights. Whelan ruled the amendments “null and void,” and of “no further effect,” thus barring permits and hardship exemptions under the law.
The county has filed notice of appeal in that case.
Through through the presiding officer, County Executive Steve Bellone has introduced new legislation, cosponsored by East End legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming, to reauthorize the farmland preservation program and the county’s farmland committee, to allow the construction of farm stands and processing facilities and to define the right to farm on agricultural lands to include “agricultural tourism” and the right to build barns, sheds and greenhouses “necessary for a farm operation and/or supportive of agricultural production.”
The bill was laid on the table at the legislature’s organizational meeting last week.
“We believe that the findings in this lawsuit strike at the very heart of future agricultural success in Suffolk County and that the findings fail to recognize that support structures on agricultural lands have always been an essential and inherent component of agricultural production,” Bellone said.
The bill “ensures that standard agricultural practices that are reasonable, necessary and appropriate for a farm operation and agricultural production continue to be allowed on preserved farmland in Suffolk County,” Bellone said.
“Land preservation not only benefits this generation, but future generations,” said Krupski, the legislature’s first and only farmer. “As food security becomes an increasingly important issue to more people, it is vital we preserve productive farms in Suffolk County.”
Suffolk County’s farmland preservation program, created in 1974, is the oldest farmland protection program in the nation. Since its creation, it has preserved more than 10,750 acres — at a cost of more than $260 million. The revenue for the preservation effort comes from a special quarter-percent sales tax.
Farmland protection programs across the state and across the nation all recognize that farming requires accessory support structures, including greenhouses, barns, fences, animal pens, and farm stands to maintain the economic viability of the agricultural operation, Bellone said. Accessory structures have always been essential to the art and science of agriculture, he said. They are “inherent and necessary components of agricultural production and working agricultural lands.”
The Long Island Farm Bureau supports “temporary changes” to the county’s farmland preservation program that will clarify the ability of farmers to continue their operations for the immediate future, L.I. Farm Bureau’s administrative director Rob Carpenter said in a press release.
“Just to clarify some misinformation that has been circulated among the public — commercial solar farms, wedding and catering halls have never been permitted, nor do any currently exist on county-preserved land,” Carpenter said.
“County Executive Bellone knows full well that his local law can’t supersede a Supreme Court decision,” L.I. Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper said. “The only way to change the farmland purchase of development rights program is to go back to the voters who created it at referendum. Bellone is not doing that because he knows the voters and taxpayers aren’t going to vote to pay farmers not to develop their land and then allow them to develop the property anyway.”