The Pike farm stand on Main Street in Sagaponack. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.
By Mara Certic
The Peconic Land Trust has been dedicated to preserving the natural lands and working farms on the East End for over 30 years. As real estate prices continue to climb, the land trust has been exploring ways to impose restrictions that would keep local farmers farming.
John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, spoke about some of the methods to preserve farmland at this month’s meeting of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee on Monday, July 28.
The most common way, the purchase of development rights, was pioneered nationwide by Suffolk County in 1970s. The practice has since been emulated throughout the nation.
“A simple explanation is this: when you own land, it comes with a bundle of rights. Zoning, of course, gives you the parameters of what you can do with it,” Mr. Halsey explained on Monday. “Probably the most valuable right associated with land is the right to build,” he said. The other rights, such as the right to farm or the right to walk on the land have less value in the marketplace.
“So the farmer would sell the most valuable rights associated with the land, but they would retain all the other rights with it,” he said. This became an opportunity for farmers to tap into the equity of their land and afford the estate tax on their land. It was also a way to ensure that farmland remained agricultural land and to prevent the over development of open space. Beginning in the early 1980s, East End towns began creating funds to purchase development rights and open space.
Another way of protecting agricultural land is through the subdivision process. The cluster provision, which came into use in the 1980s, typically “clusters” development in the least valuable portion of the property and requires that 50 to 65 percent of the rest of the land be preserved.
According to Mr. Halsey, both methods have been successful components of conservation through the years, but more needs to be done.
“As land value goes up, the federal estate tax becomes more of an issue. The value of real estate has continued to go up and today it’s higher than it’s ever been and it’s higher than anyone could have thought,” Mr. Halsey said.
“Non-farmers are not bound by the same economic reality,” he continued. Over the past 40 years, 12,000 acres of farmland has been protected in Suffolk County; several thousand of those acres are in the Town of Southampton.
However much of this land has been taken out of production, with much of it going top equestrian uses, which is defined as an agricultural use by New York State, he added.
Mr. Halsey was keen to say that he has no problem with horses, but stressed, “It is disturbing to me that that could end up being the only agricultural use that anyone has in the long run. I’m seeing the intent of these programs unraveling.”
“We need to do something and do it in a way that’s fair,” he added.
In 2010, the Peconic Land Trust purchased 7.6 acres of farmland from the Hopping family in Sagaponack for $6 million. It then sold the development rights to the county for $4.3 million. “We wanted to get this land into the hands of the Pikes,” Mr. Halsey said, noting that Jim Pike had farmed on the land when it was owned by the Hopping family but did not have the means to purchase it from them directly.
As a public charity, however, the Peconic Land Trust cannot sell something to someone at less than market value, and even without the developmental rights, the farmland was expensive for the Pikes.
So the trust borrowed restrictions that Massachusetts and Vermont have been using to protect farmland. It was then able to put in these additional restrictions, which “reduced the value of that farmland so non-famers weren’t interested,” he said.
Under the deal, the parties agreed to eliminate equestrian use and drastically limited the right of Mr. Pike to use the property for nursery stock. The trust has retained the right to lease the land to a farmer if it is taken out of production for two years. The trust also put on a restriction to ensure that it has the right to review the future sales of the farmland and that it must be sold to a qualified farmer. It sold the property to the Pikes for $167,200.
“Our goal has been to model these restrictions and try to get the town to consider incorporating them into the town purchasing policy,” Mr. Halsey told the CAC.
Three months ago, these additional restrictions were used by the trust to purchase 33 acres on Head of Pond Road in Water Mill. “We’re very pleased that the town board agreed unanimously to purchase the additional restrictions,” he said.
“We’re the first municipality in the State of New York to include these new restrictions and [the members of the board] deserve a lot of credit for that,” he said.”
The Peconic Land Trust will celebrate the latest acquisition on Tuesday, August 5, at 10 a.m. at the newly acquired land.