As East Hampton farms and fields become both scarce and valuable, the interest in preserving those lands is seemingly on the increase.
At the East Hampton Town Planning Board’s meeting on Wednesday, January 15, members expressed an interest in forming an agricultural advisory committee to help guide the town on land preservation and farm-related issues that spring up from time to time, including the abandonment of agricultural use of land that is acquired by the town for that purpose.
Board Chairman Reed Jones said the committee, if created, could help answer a lot of questions that may come out of a precedent-setting amendment to Suffolk County code that applies to land acquired by the county. In the code, which sets out to preserve agricultural land, non-agricultural use is prohibited on such land, and penalties for such uses are defined. Mr. Reed opened up the question of whether the town should consider something similar.
Board member Ian Calder-Piedmonte said an agricultural advisory committee would be a good way to work with farmers and landowners to get advice on this subject and discuss ways to determine whether land is being used as it should, while being respectful of landowners’ rights.
He offered that the money that gets collected from fines paid by those not in accordance with the county law could be used to put toward purchasing developmental rights for agricultural lands. “The penalties levied could be earmarked and dedicated to a fund solely to benefit agriculture and bring those lands back to production,” he said. “We’ve lost control because of the value of the land out here and the way it’s being used.”
He said reserving agricultural land should not always be simply open space, or lawns, and that such land is often advertised as such in real estate.
“But the details are going to be tricky,” he said about figuring out how best to preserve agricultural land. “It is a good idea to have an agricultural voice always represented to the town boards and Planning Department … and to not make decisions in ignorance. We want to make sure our town is represented. We need to recognize the specific economics and land limitations of our area.”
The board members agreed that having a group of different community members, from farmers to Peconic Land Trust members to Town Community Preservation Fund officials and Long Island Farm Bureau members, would be ideal.
Ultimately, the idea is to mirror the Southampton Town Agricultural Advisory Committee, which has 13 members from different backgrounds.
Mr. Jones said that there are a lot of specifics to work out but the Planning Board wants input on the subject before they send a letter to the town requesting a group be formed and sanctioned.
This week, Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the board’s ideas are worth looking at. “I think they’re on the cutting edge of an important discussion,” he said. “The town has done a reasonably good job preserving farmland soils, but in some cases, land preserved from development has moved away from crop production and farming. There is new thinking about trying to fund ways to assure farmland is used for producing food in the future.”