Debate Over Farm Law Continues

Proposed changes to town procedures for review of farm structures, such as this hoop house, will be reviewed by New York State for compliance with its Agriculture and Markets Law. Durell Godfrey

    A proposed amendment to East Hampton Town’s zoning code, designed to simplify the procedure for farmers looking to add greenhouses, farm stands, or other buildings to their land is the right idea, most speakers at a town board hearing last week on the legislation agreed, but the devil is in the details.
    In fact, the legislation may even be illegal under state law, according to one speaker, David Eagan, an East Hampton attorney who owns a Wainscott horse farm with his wife, Mary Ann McCaffrey. He explained to the board the State Agricultural and Markets Law, which supersedes town law, and described a court decision rendered in a case regarding his own property, which found East Hampton’s site plan review process unreasonably restrictive to farmers. It was deemed unenforceable, he said.
    “Since that time, nothing has changed in East Hampton,” he told the board. “I’m disappointed that the town has not involved the State of New York in this process.” Although the intent of the proposed law is good, and “long overdue,” Mr. Eagan said, several aspects of the legislation violate state guidelines regarding zoning rules that can be enforced by municipalities on agricultural operations.
    He said he had submitted the proposed town law to the State Department of Agriculture and Markets for a formal review.
    If the legislation is adopted, Mr. Eagan wrote, “the East Hampton Town Code will continue to blatantly violate the protections afforded owners and operators of farm operations contained in . . . the New York State Agriculture and Markets Law in many respects. . . .”
    In addition to running afoul of state agricultural law jurisdiction, Mr. Eagan said at last week’s hearing that the proposal to have site plan review for farms conducted by the architectural review board rather than the planning board — an aspect of the proposal that has drawn criticism on other fronts — is also illegal under state law.
    Town boards, he said, may delegate their jurisdiction over the planning process to a planning board, as East Hampton has chosen to do, but once that designee is chosen, the town board may not hand specific aspects of planning review to other entities.
    Nonetheless, Mr. Eagan said the proposed legislation “gets closer” to the type of regulations the state approves of for farms, “but it doesn’t go far enough, and it isn’t inclusive enough.” For instance, he said, the streamlined site plan process proposed would not be available for certain kinds of farms, including commercial horse-boarding operations. “The state wants and demands and mandates a streamlined process,” Mr. Eagan said.
    Alex Balsam, an owner of Balsam Farms, spoke in favor of the proposal, which would also increase the maximum allowable size of farm stands to 500 square feet and establish front-yard setbacks of 20 feet and side and rear setbacks of 15 feet.
    Mr. Balsam addressed some objections to the code revision voiced at a previous hearing, when some people argued that a qualified board such as the planning board should review details such as the placement of buildings, driveways, and the like.
    “People who fail to recognize what farmers need for their business and instead take the position that we need to protect our community from our farms frankly fail to see the forest for the trees,” Mr. Balsam said. Working farms, he said, and not simply open space, “create the character of the community.”
    “We’re primarily talking about aesthetics, and for handling aesthetics, the architectural review board is the right venue,” Mr. Balsam said. He said that he thought state officials would find little fault with the proposal. “This is either great code, or damn near it,” he said.
    But Elaine Jones, an Amagansett resident, said the construction of large “temporary” growing houses, many of which remain in place year round, could have a significant impact. “Are you opening up to something much bigger in residential neighborhoods?” she asked. “This is not a minor change. This is huge, with the possibility of monster greenhouses close to neighbors.”
    “Our community must work to keep farmers in business, in balance with the town’s planning goals,” said Sylvia Overby, a Democratic candidate for town board. A former  planning board member, she said she was concerned about omitting review of specifics such as lighting, or a requirement to submit a survey showing the position of buildings and other details, including topographical information.
    “Land-use planning doesn’t seem to be one of the duties of the A.R.B., according to our code,” she said, noting that the architectural review board’s task is described as “architectural and design review.” A previous version of the code amendment would have handed site plan review on farms to the town building inspector.
    Ms. Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, a current planning board member and her running mate in the town board election, both questioned a provision in the proposed law requiring a farm to have been in “active use” for two years before it could qualify for the streamlined review process. That, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, would unnecessarily affect “someone starting out in the business.”
    Scott Chaskey, a farmer at the Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett for 22 years, and Ira Bezoza, a director of Food Pantry Farm, which grows vegetables for food pantries at the East End Cooperative Organic Farm in East Hampton, urged the board to press forward. Mr. Bezoza said gaining approval to erect a hoop house is key to the farm’s “ability to grow organic vegetables to give to food pantries in the winter and early spring when the demand is greatest. . . .”
    Mr. Chaskey suggested that the board appoint a committee, on which he volunteered to serve, to work on the legislation so that it could pass muster with the state.
    The town board has not had a public discussion of the issue since the hearing was closed last Thursday night.