A landowner planning to subdivide 20 acres on Cedar Street in East Hampton has renewed a push to have his land removed from the prime farmland category in the town code, which imposes restrictions on how it may be developed.
John Talmage told the East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday that the soil classifications in the town code are no longer consistent with those of the United States Department of Agriculture and should be revised. The U.S.D.A., he said, no longer designates “Plymouth loamy sand, with a silty subsoil,” the type on his land, as prime soil.
The town code was based on the classification of agricultural soils in a 1975 U.S.D.A. report, which has undergone updates since then. Laurie Wiltshire, a land planner representing Mr. Talmage, said on Tuesday that the code is now based on an “obsolete book,” which the agency itself has “acknowledged is faulty, and they no longer use.”
Farming on his land had been abandoned, Mr. Talmage told the town board on Tuesday, because “it’s too sandy.” He said it has few nutrients, responds poorly to fertilizer, and has low moisture content.
In order to preserve farmland, the town requires property owners seeking to develop agricultural land to set aside 70 percent of the acreage as an agricultural reserve. If held to this regulation, the Talmage family, who want to create four house lots, would have to leave 14 acres alone and cluster the lots on the remaining six.
Calling the soils on the Talmage property “mediocre,” Ms. Wiltshire said that if freed of those requirements, the family could create “decent-sized house lots, instead of having to cluster.” There could, presumably, also be a greater economic return.
However, Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town planning director, reached by phone Tuesday, said that regardless of whether the Talmage land was removed from prime-soils designation, it would be subject to restrictions such as clustering house lots to preserve open space because it is in an agricultural zoning district.
“My problem with your request is the impact to all the other properties,” Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said at the meeting. She had reviewed the matter two or three years ago, when first approached by Mr. Talmage, she said, and had decided that she could not support a code change.
“It turns out there is a slew of properties that are tied to this designation,” she said. Whether prime farmland is properly or incorrectly defined, she said, the town has, since 1975, based planning decisions on the code.
“There have been 30 years of planning, 30 years of people purchasing property, of investing,” based on the current definitions and regulations, she said. Using an analogy, she said that even if town officials declared something not colored blue to be blue, “the fact that we’re wrong in calling this blue doesn’t mean our planning was wrong.” Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc agreed with Ms. Quigley’s concerns about the potential wide-ranging impact of a code change. Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said he, too, was concerned about “collateral damage” to other owners who may have decided about whether to buy property based on the restrictions of the current subdivision code and its definition of prime soils.
According to Ms. Wiltshire, however, the number of properties with the same soil as the Talmage land is minimal, so a correction would not have wide-ranging effects. She said that a list the Planning Department had provided Ms. Quigley of properties containing prime soils as now defined by the town code includes not only lands in the U.S.D.A.’s top two farmland categories, which would remain labeled as prime even if the code were changed, but woodland or cemetery lots that are not farmed.
Mr. Talmage said at the board meeting Tuesday that his family has seen an “erosion of at least 80 percent of my land value, because of what I would call improper zoning.” The property was once zoned for one-acre house lots, but was upzoned to two-acre minimum lots and then upzoned again for a minimum of five-acre lots, saying that the primary reason for the upzoning was that it was considered prime agricultural soils.
“The whole thing just smacks of injustice to me,” Ms. Wiltshire said after the board meeting on Tuesday. The Talmage family, she said at the meeting, has been in East Hampton for generations. And, she said, “they have had their rights taken away over and over and over again based on misinformation.”
Mr. Talmage urged the board to rectify the discrepancy. “You say it’s too much work. I say do the work. Are you going to take the high road, or are you going to take the low road?”
Ms. Quigley suggested that the Talmages seek a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals allowing them to proceed with a standard subdivision. But, said John Jilnicki, the town attorney, variances from the open space subdivision chapter of the town code are not allowed.
The councilwoman agreed to seek more information from the Planning Department about the townwide impact of a code change. But the board, she said, should pursue other “possible legislative corrections . . . without changing everything in East Hampton.”