Lawsuit Challenges Barn on Farmland

A court decision last fall prohibiting barns and other structures on farmland protected by a Suffolk County program may play into a lawsuit challenging a barn on Peconic Land Trust acreage in Amagansett.

Fouad Chartouni, whose residential property is surrounded on three sides by farmland fronting on Town Lane, filed suit in November seeking to overturn county approval for the barn.

The barn was to be used by tenants renting portions of the land trust’s Deborah Light Preserve. It has remained unoccupied as a result of the lawsuit, John v.H. Halsey of the Peconic Land Trust said yesterday.

The county’s farmland preservation program, established in 1974 and approved by voters, provided money for the county to buy the development rights of farmland while it remained in private hands. Two amendments, adopted by the Suffolk Legislature in 2010 and 2013, cleared the way for such structures through waivers and hardship exemptions for farmers, but the amendments were overturned in September by Justice Thomas Whelan of State Supreme Court.

His decision, in favor of a Long Island Pine Barrens Society lawsuit, said that construction of fences, barns, greenhouses, irrigation systems, and the like was illegal on farmland whose development rights had been purchased by the county.

 The potential for development on farmland, the Pine Barrens Society argued, was not among the provisions of the program. It said the county had no right to modify the program after it was approved by voters, that doing so circumvented their will and created a back door for development on protected land.

The ruling, which the county has appealed, has thrown the future of farm buildings on protected sites into question and roiled county officials and agriculture advocates who see it as a threat to farming’s future in the county. Approximately 366 acres of farmland in East Hampton are affected.

Providing farmers with the ability to put up structures is key to helping them adapt, diversify, and survive, supporters of revising the rules, including County Legislator Al Krupski and County Executive Steve Bellone, have said. A proposed county law would allow farmers to erect some structures without permits; the exemptions that Justice Whelan ruled against would in that case be dropped. State legislation that would clarify the objective of Suffolk’s farmland development rights purchases as intended to preserve agriculture and allow farm buildings and uses as defined in state law has also been introduced.

The Amagansett barn, on Town Lane farmland owned by the Peconic Land Trust but for which the county purchased development rights, prompted Mr. Chartouni to sue the county’s farmland committee and its division of planning and environment as well as the land trust. The farmland committee had approved the construction, at the western edge of farmland a distance behind the Balsam Farms farm stand, last July. An East Hampton Town building permit was issued and the barn was put up before the Building Department determined that an application should have been made to the planning board for site-plan review. A stop-work order was issued, and an application is now undergoing review.

The construction of the barn was part of the land trust’s Farms for the Future initiative, through which farmland on the North and South Forks is leased to numerous small-scale farmers. A barn to hold equipment and other items is “an essential piece of farming,” Pam Greene, a senior vice president of the land trust, said yesterday. She declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

Linda Margolin, Mr. Chartouni’s attorney, said Tuesday that, while the county farmland committee approved the Peconic Land Trust’s barn before Judge Whelan’s ruling, she believes his decision that the county lacks the authority to allow structures on protected farmland should void permits issued even before the ruling. She has also called into question the farmland committee’s decision-making procedure, saying, for instance, that the barn’s impact on neighboring properties, the view, soil, and water was not properly considered. She also said adjacent property owners had not been notified of the application for a building permit. At 98 by 60 feet and 24 feet high with a reflective exterior, the barn is looming, Ms. Margolin said.

She nevertheless acknowledged that farmers’ inability to put up barns and the like “poses big practical problems” for those who want to expand their operations.