Kilmore Debate Rages

August 27, 1998

The public hearing is over, but the debate raging in East Hampton over legislation that would redefine horse farms and riding academies, and that could put an end to the proposed Kilmore Horse Farm in Wainscott, is far from finished.

Wainscott neighbors, farmers, and equestrians filled the Town Hall courtroom to capacity on Friday, alternately urging the Town Board to adopt the changes in the law and criticizing it for even suggesting them.

Many of the same lines were spoken and many of the same arguments raised two nights earlier at a hearing before the Town Planning Board. Many of the same actors, too, were on stage.

Two Boards Involved

The Planning Board's lawyer, Rick Whalen, has ruled that Kilmore fits the Town Code's present definition of a horse farm, and as such could be allowed by special permit on the property between Town Line Road and Sayre's Path that Mary Ann McCaffrey and David Eagan have leased with an option to buy.

But opponents, many of them neighbors of the proposed operation, have challenged Mr. Whalen's decision, contending that Kilmore, with its 7,200-square-foot indoor riding ring, stables, and paddocks, more closely fits the code's definition of a riding academy, which they say should not be allowed on an agricultural reserve, than of a horse farm.

The amendment to the code was proposed even as the Planning Board was considering the application, angering some members of that board who felt their autonomy was being undermined.

Many Questions

Some persons at Friday's Town Board hearing said the new laws were needed if the town was to protect its remaining farmland for true agriculture. Others called the legislation politically motivated - Ms. McCaffrey's parents are both prominent in local Republican politics - and said it smacked of spot zoning.

The questions on both sides are many.

Was the agricultural easement covering the land intended to preserve vistas and open space as well as space to farm?

Is a horse farm a traditional farming use, qualifying for agricultural reserve designation? Should it be allowed on prime farmland? Is it compatible with the neighborhood? Will it affect property values?

If people cannot make choices about how to use the land they have voluntarily set aside for agricultural purposes, Mr. Eagan has asked, will they be as willing to work out preservation deals in the future?

But those in favor of the law wonder if it is appropriate to raise horses or put up greenhouses or grow trees on prime soils preserved for farming. And, when it comes to horses, where do you draw the line between agriculture and recreation?

The attorney Russell Stein, representing a group of 14 Kilmore neighbors before the Planning Board, cited various special-permit and animal husbandry guidelines in the Town Code and urged the board to consider each one individually when considering the project.

Attorneys Debate

Among them were "protection of neighborhoods," safety and health, "aesthetic attributes," property values, "compatibility with the surroundings and the character of the neighborhood," and specifics such as setbacks, waste disposal, dust, and odors.

"This is a judgment call, folks," he told the Planning Board. "You make the call. Entitlement to a special exception is not a matter of right."

"You have the power, you have the authority, to turn this down. And when you do, you're not saying anything more about agriculture in East Hampton."

George Biondo, representing Ms. McCaffrey and Mr. Eagan, said their proposal "conforms in every way to the letter and spirit of the law" governing the use of agricultural land. His clients, he said, "have submitted documentation to the board that states how they met, line by line, each of the special-permit standards."

Neighbors' Vistas

Eighteen speakers, all but three of whom opposed the project, followed Mr. Stein and Mr. Biondo.

If Kilmore is built, said Nancy Schneider, "my view would be 226 feet of buildings and over a mile of plastic fencing." Ironically, she noted, she was informed when building her house that the materials chosen had an "adverse visual impact on the character of the area."

Several others said they'd paid a premium for the vista, believing the agricultural reserve would remain undeveloped, and will pay a price should Kilmore be approved.

However, countered Mr. Biondo, "an agricultural easement is not a scenic easement. They did not buy property on a scenic easement. They bought property on an agricultural easement."

Covenants

Original covenants of the subdivision, Wainscott Farms, state that "less than 25 percent will actually be disturbed and devoted to development," submitted Mr. Stein.

Indeed, he said, the intent of the original easement "was to keep openness. Yes, it was to protect agriculture, but I can tell you it was also to keep open views."

"In no way did I ever contemplate this type of project," said Francine Lembo, another neighbor. An attorney, she said she had examined the easement covering the property. "I felt protected," she said.

Another speaker, Geri Rosenberger, told the Planning Board she had moved recently from Sagaponack "after our quiet neighborhood was overwhelmed by the presence of a horse farm, and the property values suffered accordingly."

Shortly after moving into her new home in Wainscott she learned, to her dismay, of the Kilmore plan. "I ask you to deny the special permit application and let a real farmer . . . put up a potato barn," she said.

Concern For Farmers

"Creating a special exception here is an outrage," said Doreen Niggles. "We need to make more special exceptions for our farmers and give them back the land they need to farm. No more horse farms, and no more nurseries. The fact that we have an active farming community is very unique."

Ms. Niggles said much the same at Town Hall on Friday, wondering if any land will be left to grow edible crops on. "Who will grow America's food supply?" she asked the Town Board.

Henry Schwenk, a longtime Wainscott farmer, argued against the code change, saying it would be a "rule against real agriculture in favor of the need for scenic views and tranquillity."

"It's getting so who the hell wants to farm?" he asked. "Nobody. Nobody," he answered.

The only thing a farmer can do with his land once the development rights are sold or agricultural reserves are created is farm it, Mr. Schwenk said. But, he said, the scope of farming seems to be getting narrower and narrower. "Agriculture as we know it is over."

"You can farm on it, but you're going to have to provide a view for these people forever," Mr. Schwenk said. "They don't give a damn about farming."

Few Large Tracts

The configuration of farmland all over the South Fork is changing rapidly. Compared to even 10 years ago, relatively few large tracts are available to the farmer. Replacing them are smaller fields, often reserved when farms are subdivided for development.

Because a small-scale horse farm can be more profitable than a small-scale vegetable farm, many see horse farms as the future of farming here. In the past few years, horse farms have proliferated on fields in Southampton Town that were once devoted to crops.

Mr. Stein, too, was at Friday's Town Board hearing. In the 1970s and 1980s, he and others working to preserve farmland "thought we were preserving dirt farming," the attorney said. He called indoor riding rings "adjuncts to suburban development."

Urge Caution

Mike Bottini, an environmental planner with the Group for the South Fork, warned, however, that the legislation the town is now considering might not do what its proponents want it to. The town needs to be certain the law would still allow horse farms as a viable alternative to residential development, Mr. Bottini said.

"Local towns have to be careful not to have unreasonable impediments to agriculture in their local code," said Joe Gergela, the executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. "Many farmland owners have sold the development rights to their land or reduced the density of a subdivision at a cost to themselves."

"The keeping of horses has always been an essential and accepted agricultural use," he continued.

He suggested the town seek input from the State Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets. Supervisor Cathy Lester agreed with him.

Open-Space Vistas

But Lloyd Simon, who owns a house bordering the 14-acre reserve Mr. Eagan and Ms. McCaffrey have set their sights on, said he "paid a premium because [. . .] an agricultural reserve was in the middle." He and his wife built their house as close to the reserve as possible, he told the Town Board, so their son would be able to see a farm in action.

"It's certainly my intention, and that of my neighbors, to sue," Mr. Simon, an attorney, had promised the Planning Board two days earlier, adding, "So don't feel that you are protecting the town from a lawsuit if you approve this project."

Mr. Eagan and Ms. McCaffrey do not yet own the land, and Mr. Simon had suggested at the Aug. 16 hearing that they "go across the street and do what they need to do." He believes the neighbors would get together to pay what he said was $180,000 for the land, then let a crop farmer cultivate it.

Oppose Amendment

Town Board members listened quietly as Ms. McCaffrey read a petition signed by more than 600 people from Wainscott, East Hampton, Montauk, and Springs, opposing the proposed "change in the Town Code that would prohibit indoor riding arenas on agriculture reserve lands and on small horse farms townwide."

Elizabeth Schaffner of East Hampton said she herself had purchased three residential lots in Northwest. After she merges them into one 16-acre parcel, she plans to create a horse farm with an indoor riding ring, she said. If the code is changed, however, all her planning will be for nothing.

"Why is East Hampton creating this untenable situation for people who benefit the town?" asked Ms. Schaffner, who writes a column about animals for The Star.

In an Aug. 10 letter to the Town Board, Cyla Allison, the president of the Nassau-Suffolk Horsemen's Association, explained that "stables find it extremely difficult to make year-round use of their facilities and thus to make financial ends meet. [ . . . ] To keep horses fit, usable, and in training requires year-round attention. An indoor arena is simply good use of time and space. . . ."

Discrimination?

Diana Zadarla of Red Dirt Road in Springs called the legislation "an arbitrary discrimination against the entire horse community."

The East Hampton Business Alliance seemed to agree. "The proposed change in code appears illegal to us [in that] the Town Code permits horse farms but would prohibit one that could operate year-round," said Sherry Wolfe, the executive director of the group.

But Leslie Mandel of Wainscott disagreed. "Last February, the grass was growing," she said. "I am not worried about any four-legged animal in East Hampton running around being cold."

"Nearly all the Democrats and a significant number of Republicans want this law passed," Ms. Mandel continued. "Republicans, Len Ber nard. Republicans, Pat Mansir. Republicans."

Planning Board's Role

"Maybe we do need changes to agriculture reserve property," said former Republican Councilwoman Nancy McCaffrey, but this law "has not been thought out." Ms. McCaffrey, the mother of Mary Ann McCaffrey, called it setting "a dangerous precedent."

"To pass this legislation" will not really solve the problem these people are concerned about," said Mr. Biondo. "I understand the concerns about the Kilmore application, but it's in the hands of the Planning Board to decide."

He also suggested the board could not pass the legislation, which he described as a "last-minute, slap-dash" move to stop Kilmore, until it had gone through the rigors of the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

"If you want to change this law, change it after this application has gone through," said Phil McSweeney of Springs. To do otherwise, he said, would be "obscene."

Mr. Eagan and Ms. McCaffrey have already threatened legal action if the legislation is approved before the Planning Board decides on their application. That board will continue its review.