New, and Old, Ideas On Preserving Farmland

Back in the 1970s when the East End towns and Suffolk County began paying the owners of farmland hefty sums in exchange for forgoing ever having any houses on the land, no one could imagine the changes in South Fork real estate that were to come. Today, some of these agricultural reserves are used, not for farming, but for lawns, stables, and low-property tax annexes for the wealthy. These uses are contrary to the original intention of the preservation programs, but are legal because the development rights deals crafted years ago did not require that the land be kept in crop production.

The East Hampton Town Board heard public comment last week on its plan to offer landowners additional money to keep the farms as farmland. Prompted by the Peconic Land Trust and others, Southampton Town recently adopted a program to pay for what is clunkily called enhanced development rights to target nearly all non-food production uses.

East Hampton Town’s plan could be a little more forgiving. Prompted by Alex Balsam, a co-owner of Balsam Farms in Amagansett and an attorney, the board appears to look favorably on a less-restrictive approach, allowing farmers greater latitude than in Southampton for what structures would be permitted. Balsam Farm’s ever-growing retail operation on Town Lane might be considered an example of what should not be allowed, and the board should be skeptical of Mr. Balsam’s advice. It should be noted that Mr. Balsam is chairman of the town’s agricultural advisory committee and is seeking permits for a large barn on a preserved property on Long Lane in East Hampton, for which one of the ideas is a beer brewery.

Farmers need flexibility, they say, to survive on the South Fork. That may be true, but so, too, do many other categories of local business. Exactly why farmers should expect special treatment has not been made adequately clear. To the extent that such flexibilty on how farmland is used includes sprawling agro-entertainment operations, like Hank’s Pumpkin Town in Water Mill or the North Fork’s traffic-tangling wine tasting scene, it is clear that restrictions are a must.

It is safe to say that when the original development rights programs were created, public support was for preserving open space and views as much as for crop production. Our position is that the town should go ahead with a new plan to make money available to assure that farmland is for farms. While flexibility might be built into the law to provide special permission for a necessary barn or other structure, what it should not mean is that anything goes.