Battles to preserve open space and farmland in Monroe and adjacent counties have tended to stress particular, very local issues. Should the farm in a given neighborhood be developed into a new subdivision? Should a shopping area expand into farmland next door? Should a farm that stands between a commercial development and a residential area be developed?
This week, the Monroe County Legislature unanimously passed the Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan in an attempt to make the issue more of a regional planning priority.
By passing the plan, Monroe County leaders are trying to educate residents about the significant economic and tax value of farms–knowledge they hope will lead to a better economic, social and political climate for farmers and other residents. Among those leaders involved in developing the plan is Dennis Pelletier, president of the Monroe County Legislature and chairman of the Monroe County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board.
The board spent the past three years coming up with a plan that demonstrates not only the importance of the local agriculture industry, but also its fragility and the need to support it. The Monroe County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan “recognizes that farming is the No. 1 industry in New York State,” Pelletier says. “It’s a very big economy.”
That proposal, some 300 pages long, was approved unanimously this week by the Monroe County Legislature. Passing the plan enables all the communities in the county to apply for state matching funds in an annual pool of approximately $3.5 million earmarked for farmland preservation. More than that, it gives communities a massive reference to pore over, and an opportunity to shed more attention on the farming industry.
Communities in the county have taken a variety of tacks in approaching the problem of farmland preservation, ranging from the major time and financial commitment made by the Town of Pittsford to the more modest foray into the issue by the Town of Parma.
In nearby Macedon, Wayne County, town leaders have proposed that 41 percent of the town’s land be preserved as open space. Macedon is bordered by Gananda, which is a fast-growing residential area, and Perinton.
The Macedon plan is slated to have a hearing for questions next week. Under the proposal, development in the preservation zone would be clustered. And for each acre of land developed, another would have to be kept undeveloped.
It is fitting that communities should take notice of open space and farm preservation. A slew of statistics indicates that the amount of farmland in Monroe County is slowly being eroded by an army of factors.
The amount of Monroe County farmland has dropped 6 percent, from 110,150 acres in 1992 to 103,097 acres in 1997, according to the New York Agricultural Statistics Service census. The number of full-time farms fell from 273 to 252, and the number of part-time farms decreased from 363 to 341.
Yet the total economic impact of agriculture stood, in 1997, at $144 million. That figure represents the different industries that farming benefits, from trucking to tourism.
Development pressure is frequently cited as a cause for the drop in the number of acres devoted to farmland, though behind that force are the myriad tribulations farmers face in cultivating their trade. As with many urban areas, some of the only open space left to build on is occupied by farms–and developers are willing to pay a high price for the land.
For older suburbs such as Brighton and Irondequoit, the farmland represents one of the only ways to bring new structures onto the tax rolls. One example is the current battle over the last farm along Westfall Road in Brighton, which Anthony J. Costello & Sons Development LLC wants to develop. It is situated next to medical buildings that have been built in the last decade or so.
Costello, chairman and CEO of the commercial development company, points out that the Gonsenhauser estate had been disused for years before his company purchased it. Five buildings have gone up since 1985, he said. However, zoning issues have slowed further development.
Costello says he does not face much of the resistance to development that residential developers contend with, but he has needed to work with municipal officials to make sure construction is acceptable to the surrounding communities.
In the case of the estate–some 200 acres of scattered parcels–Costello does not consider it farmland, per se.
“I think we need to preserve farmland, but if it hasn’t been farmed in 10 years, it’s not a farm,” Costello says. “You can’t just say the land needs to remain the way it is, as long as someone owns it and is trying to get some economic benefit out of it.”
Besides commercial space, farmland also is being developed into new residential subdivisions. John Schantz, president of Schantz Homes Inc., develops lots and builds homes primarily in Webster and Irondequoit. Though he has limited experience dealing with farmland, he points out that much of Webster used to be orchards, sold by farmers looking to get out of the business.
“There are a lot of tools available to towns currently to allow preservation of open space without buying development rights or changing zoning to bigger lots,” Schantz says.
Clustered subdivisions can place homes closer together, saving the developer money for roads and sewer lines and retaining open acres as well. “Most developments should be looked at that way (as potential clusters), regardless of whether its farmland or woods. That’s more space for everyone,” he says.
Yet development issues encompass more than putting houses or commercial buildings on open space. All kinds of pressures act on farmers, making it harder for them to work their land and increasing the likelihood that they may leave agriculture and sell their properties.
Edward Gioia, manager of his father’s 270-acre apple orchard in Parma and owner of his own 235-acre orchard in Hamlin, recalls that several years ago his father, Alfonso, sold six acres of property, on which were built six houses.
“My father sold a few acres for homes and we regret doing that,” he said. “It’s tough to do business.” He elaborated that now the orchard has six neighbor families, some of whom have had trouble adjusting to the industrial side of farming, such as the need to spray pesticides.
Meanwhile, a strong dollar abroad has hurt the price of farm products, he says, making it less desirable to stay in the business.
Farmers like Gioia responded to a survey compiled in 1997 by the Cornell Cooperative Extension–Monroe County. Of 280 responses received, 80 percent were from farmers.
“Agriculture exerts the largest effect of any industry on both total income and employment,” farm agent Robert King says in the organization’s newsletter. Yet farmers responding to the survey complained of a lack of government awareness of farming’s economic impact. They also stressed the obstacles of what they considered excessive environmental regulations and uncontrolled drainage from nearby lands and roads.
“Over 90 percent of the respondents agreed that the environmental benefits provided by agriculture to the community need to be communicated to the public and better understood by officials,” King says.
Yet lack of awareness is only one part of the squeeze on farmers to get off their land. Nearly 70 percent of the respondents did not now or in the future expect a family member to keep on farming their land. More than 66 percent said there were not enough economic incentives to grow the agricultural industry in the county.
Nonetheless, most farmers queried about whether they would sell their land tomorrow for more than its worth in agricultural use said they would not.
Ideal for such hardy-types is the nationally publicized Pittsford plan to buy development rights to seven farms in the town. The town authorized a $9.9 million bond last year to preserve the 1,200 acres of open space the farms represent. It also has received nearly $2 million in federal and state grants for the purchase.
The plan to buy development rights has been hailed as one of the more progressive in the country. Other communities do not quite have Pittsford’s resources and have charted less adventurous courses.
Parma, for example, last year established an agricultural advisory group to complement the zoning process. The panel will review subdivision and other proposals that might have an impact on the town’s agriculture industry, says Richard Lemcke, town supervisor.
Why did the town need a special advisory group?
The problem, Lemcke says, was the influx of new residents unused to living amid the rhythms and dissonances of a farm. Residents near farms–Parma has seven full-time and as many as 30 part-time–complain about the dust, rotten cabbage or manure smells and the noise of equipment running at night.
The town has adopted a “right to farm,” he says, recognizing that farming is a valuable industry. However, nostalgia for rural ways has little place in the cold calculations that produced the following results.
“The average farmer, for every dollar they pay in taxes, they only require 31 cents in services,” Lemcke says, while the average non-farmer resident needs about $1.45 in services for every $1 paid in taxes.
As strongly as Parma wants to support its farms, its resources do not allow such a bold move as Pittsford’s. “We’re hoping with a good tax base and better planning to accomplish the same thing,” Lemcke says.
Pelletier, County Executive Jack Doyle and others in the area hope that the new farmland protection plan will encourage such initiatives.
“Farming must be an economically viable industry to survive,” said Doyle this week, introducing the plan. “The farmland protection plan aims to ensure these lands are preserved and the needs of the farmers are met. Our local farms are invaluable, and we cannot afford to overlook them as important assets to our community.”
It is intended to be a flexible document, a plan that acknowledges the different approaches communities in Monroe County may want to adopt, Pelletier says.
“It is a tool for local governments to use to help preserve farmland, open space,” he says. “Everything isn’t the same for every community. … The county didn’t want to be the Big Brother here.”
The plan contains only a handful of recommendations:
–The county should create and fund an agricultural program manager, a person who would oversee implementation of recommendations, identify priorities, seek grants and help communities, among other duties;
–Focus preservation and promotion on agricultural districts, membership in which enables farms to have agricultural assessments, become exempt from sewer and water line extension fees, and receive other benefits;
–Broadly preserve and protect farmland by considering relevant planning policies such as water, sewer and highway development, renewing agricultural districts, and a host of other proposals;
–Encourage economic viability of farming through such methods as continued revision of tax laws and working with the Cornell Cooperative Extension to increase profit per acre;
–Educate the public and farmers about how agriculture contributes to the community; and
–Maintain and expand the data base of agricultural property in Monroe County, to permit ongoing analysis of factors that affect the maintenance of farmland.
Pelletier says he is confident that this plan will not just collect dust on a shelf, but will act as a catalyst for action in the county and help provide opportunities for obtaining state and other grants. “I personally feel within the next year or so there may be a lot of money available,” he says.
Residents and community leaders have little choice but to look around them at what remains of their farmland and what opportunities there are to keep it.
Says Pelletier, “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”