September 06, 2006

Supe Fights for Farmland Protection

Save our farmland! It's a battle cry heard with resounding frequency on the East End as elected officials struggle to balance a burgeoning population with the need to preserve at-risk farmland — and the farming industry as a whole — for future generations.

In Southold, Town Supervisor Scott Russell put forth a proposal this week to protect active farmland that could provide a promising future for proponents of open space preservation and farming across the board.

At press time, Russell was slated to discuss his plan for a "Targeted Farmland Protection Fund" at Tuesday's Southold Town Board work session.

The goal of the proposal, said Russell, is to create a new fund that will allow the town to purchase, outright, farmland that's on the market, then cleanse the parcel of development rights and resell the land into an affordable farmland program.

"Currently, we have no open space or protection programs that allows us to do that," said Russell. Currently, if the town were to use its open space money to acquire an at-risk farm, the land would have to be used for open space purposes. The town "cannot save farmland without removing it from the inventory of active farmland."

That's a situation Russell is determined to change. Although he first proposed the measure as a town assessor in 1994, at the time, the idea "was not embraced" by the town board.

This time around, Russell's hoping for support for a fund that would provide great benefits to both the town and farmers struggling to survive in today's market.

Currently, a farmer must own the land in order to sell development rights. "Current real estate markets make it impossible for the farmer to acquire the land," said Russell. The new plan would allow the town to buy the development rights before the farmer subsequently takes title. "The town would no longer have to be a bystander in the process."

Instead, the town could utilize the fund to purchase farmland and then resell the parcel to an active farmer "at a greatly reduced price." A key goal is to keep a farmer's purchase price "under $10,000 per acre," or even as low as under $8,000 an acre, in the instance of a specific farm Russell has been evaluating with Timothy Caufield, of the Peconic Land Trust, and farmer Martin Sidor.

The supervisor acknowledged that prices might be higher or lower for farmers; details, he reminded, still need to be ironed out.

Should the plan proceed, twin goals will be met. Southold will succeed in acquiring development rights and farmers will acquire ownership of land for growth and expansion. "It provides another tool in the tool box for preservation," said Russell. "And the plan essentially allows farmers who want to expand the opportunity to utilize our preservation dollars as the capital needed to invest in new lands."

The proposal could mean a home run for farmers and preservation proponents alike. "By securing the development rights first we not only protect the farm in perpetuity, but we also reduce the ultimate cost of the farmland to the agricultural community," said Russell.

He added, "This is not a program that will save all farmland in our ongoing effort. But it will provide an essential component to current options and, in some cases, will be economically and environmentally compelling, and will allow the town to be more assertive in its preservation efforts."

If the board agrees with Russell's plan, the supervisor hopes to offer up a bond to the voters this November.

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