June 20, 2004

Agriculture at Planning Board meeting

For the second time this year, the Planning Board didn't have a quorum, so the meeting was purely discussion of the Draft Comprehensive Plan's agriculture section with the crowd of farmers and farm representatives who were there. (The three public hearings on Etna subdivisions had to be postponed.)

The discussion began with a general distribution of photocopies, some of which were from the Planning Board and some of which were from attendees of the meeting. The Planning Board distributed a summary of the agriculture discussion in the plan, as well as a map demonstrating how fixed-ratio zoning would work. There were also letters from the Tompkins County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board about Town of Ithaca zoning and a discussion of "upzoning".

Because the speakers at the meeting generally got to present coherent speeches (and because my recorder worked much better than usual), I'm going to try to present as much of this as possible in the speakers' own words.

George Frantz gave an introduction, noting that one of the purposes of the plan was:

"to recognize agriculture as a legitimate long-term land use, really in reaction to the tradition in New York State of treating agriculture as sort of the orphan in terms of zoning and land use... Agriculture is going to be the primary recognized use in these districts, and other land uses are going to be subordinate to that....
"The idea is to have a zoning district for agriculture that allows agriculture-related commerce and allows farmers the option of having supplemental income sources for their operation.
"And then, to help protect farming from inappropriate levels of zoning, we're proposing something called fixed ratio zoning, which would allow one residential lot for every ten acres of land within a particular parcel of land. The way this works is, we're not saying carve a farm up into 10-acre minimum lot sizes... In fact, the ideal would be to having a maximum lot size for non-farm development of only two acres, and that would leave eight acres in agriculture...
"Minimum lot sizes of 5 acres, 10 acres... whatever, do not protect agricultural land. It cuts it up into lots that are too small to farm and too large to mow."

Frantz also talked about cottage industries, small industries that aren't related to agriculture, but which can use existing farm buildings. "We're looking at ways to allow farmers the flexibility they need as business people to make sure they have enough income coming in to support and supplement the agricultural operation," he said. Frantz also discussed the need to keep high-density residential development out of farm areas to prevent conflicts, and limiting the extension of water and sewer services, keeping development pressure off farms.

After Frantz spoke, Lin Davidson, president of the Tompkins County Farm Bureau spoke, and noted that the "10 acre" minimum description wasn't correct - it was rather the "upzoning concern I have which is the encumbrance of the extra ten acres not being developed," feeling it "reduces the viability and net worth of the farm." Davidson also noted that "if people want to move into an ag area... Cooperative Extension has a handout for people that move into ag districts... when they buy into that... they're dealing with farmers working late in the fields, they're dealing with smells, they're dealing with chemistry... they're duly notified informed by law of the situation that they're buying into."

After Davidson spoke, Ken Miller, who's spoken at two previous Planning Board meetings, introduced Fred Hudson, a regional appraiser with First Pioneer Farm Credit. Hudson spoke at length, and presented the board with detailed notes (12KB PDF), which he was kind enough to send me for posting here.

Frederick Hudson speaks to the Planning Board
Frederick Hudson speaks to the Planning Board

Hudson emphasized the impact of zoning policies on appraisal evaluations and their effect on farm net worths, saying:

"You might as well call it a conservation easement, because when you legislate the rights of development around from the other 90% of the land, whatever ratio that may be, you're essentially eliminating the ability of that property to be used for some other use. You're leaving agricultural use, recreational use, or some other open space, and that's effectively what a conservation easement does.... Legislatively, it happens to take that right away from the farmer without compensation....
"I think that most of the farmers and lot of people in the agribusiness world will contend that the best line of defense for protecting agricultural land is the farmers themselves. They aren't going to do anything to that's going to jeopardize the business unless they absolutely have to. Whether it's the ability to generate income for a catastrophic happening, somebody is ill or dying, there has to be a mechanism there. It's not just one lot, it's not just $5000 or $10,000 - some of these happening are hundreds of thousands. There has to be a mechanism that farmers can rely on to get themselves out of trouble... and it won't happen with fixed-ratio zoning.
"The great impact of this fixed ratio zoning falls on one class of people, the farmers... the biggest changes in this plan will fall on this class of people, and we don't think that's fair.

Hudson discussed the ways that banks appraise for collateral for the "highest and best use to come up with a value". Hudson did some research building from a hypothetical 120-acre piece of property in the plan, contesting the plan's claim that it didn't affect the economic viability of the farm. Hudson's notes have the complete description, but working with conservative numbers, he found fixed-ratio zoning would cost farmers 13% of that farm's value (going from $312,500 to $271,600) under the best-case scenario.

Hudson also brought up another option, from a survey sent to Dryden residents a few years ago:

"59% of the respondents were in favor of protecting open land, agriculture land, and thought that the town should tax people to pay for development rights... It's mentioned about two times in the beginning of the plan, and then jumps into fixed-ratio zoning, without saying anything more about it..."

Hudson also noted that the plan claims to conform to the Tompkins County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan, but that "the Farmland Protection Board specifically stated 'land use controls to preserve farmland will not provide an effective mechanism to maintain its farmland base and agricultural industry, and that such farmland protection strategies are not viable at this time in most areas of the County.'"

Charlie Hatfield spoke about the connection between "open space, green space, but it's agricultural people that create that... I don't think you can tell people to build in town - if they want to be in the country, that's where they want to be. To me, it's costing the farmer to provide green space for all the rest of us. You can't stop people from selling land... the farmer's going to pay in the end to keep green space. Sure, everybody wants to live in the area with green space, but they don't want to pay for it. They want the guys that own it to maintain it, but yet pay their taxes every year."

Dan Konowalo, a Lansing farmer and Chairman of the Tompkins County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board. While acknowledging that his board hadn't yet seen this proposal, he compared it to:

"a very similar proposal in the Town of Ithaca... This fixed-ratio zoning is a lightning rod. This is the one thing that people pick up on, and I myself picked up on it right away, and I said to the person presenting this, it's a great way for the village folks, for the citified folks to have the farmer pay the taxes on the land, pay the time, labor, and diesel for mowing, and adding a nice expanse, and that's what a lot of people think of as greenspace, is a nicely-mowed hayfield. This is ensuring that the farmer no longer has development rights without paying for the development rights, an unlawful taking....
"George brings up the bogeyman of city folks moving out into the country unbeknownst to the ills of being near a farming operation. It's funny...my land is not on the market, but I've had people knocking on my door to see if I'd knock off a piece... It's something that is desirable for a certain number of people...
"Planners say that they like mixed uses together, and this seems to mitigate against the free choices that would allow mixed uses to come in. The farmers that I have heard from just think that fixed-ratio zoning is the worst thing since non-sliced bread."

Dan Konowalo speaks to the Planning Board
Dan Konowalo speaks to the Planning Board

Greg McConnell, a loan officer at First Pioneer Farm Credit, also spoke about "working with a number of Dryden farmers" and having reading parts of the plan and minutes of prior meetings. He said:

"I think there are some very positive points, some real attempts to set some goals that might be valuable to all the residents of the Town of Dryden.... Where the disparity sets in is how do we arrive at those goals. Open space sounds good, preserving unique natural areas, preserving ag land, making towns thrive... all of these goals are commendable.
"Number one, can you legislate your way to that, number two can you only rely on legislation to get you there, and number three, are the legislations that are proposed tugging the other way? ... For me as a wage-earner, my equity doesn't all lie in my land - a lot of it lies in my 401(k)... - but for a lot of farmers that I work with, their retirement is their land, whether they're going to pass it to the next generation, sell the whole thing to another farmer, who by the way buys it as an investment... so for the farmer, what they rely on for retirement is their land. So if Fred's numbers are right - and I believe they are conservative, it may be a much bigger haircut. The average farm I work with is somewhere between five and seven hundred acres, so you extrapolate those numbers and we're talking about somewhere between 300 and 400 thousand dollars has just been deducted from their equity.
"One of the tugs of war here that I mentioned early between the goals being set and the mechanisms going the other way... this plan benefits non-farmers with parks and trails and open space... but to fund those, it's planning a 1% increase per year in taxes. Those taxes are paid by farmers as well as other Dryden residents... that only adds to the inequities... Nowhere in the plan does it factor in the role of excessive property taxes actually driving premature conversion of land.... Income isn't necessarily derived at the time taxes are due.
"The other thing the plan doesn't acknowledge is the role of part-time farmers... who do play a role in preserving open space."

McConnell also felt that developers would prefer the fixed-ratio lots to the cluster development proposed elsewhere in the plan, driving development away from the villages and hamlets. He concluded by saying that:

"If this is really the goal of the people of Dryden, I think it can be arrived at in ways other than robbing the equity from farmers, and I think it can be done in many different ways... addressing the inequity of the amount of services farmers use relative to the amount of taxes they pay...trying to incent... not expecting developers to go against market forces, but incenting them to go where you want them to... we need to take into account that even though the public wants these things, but are they willing to pay for them?"

After these presentations, there was discussion and questions, focusing on what can be done to help farmers stay in business. A lot of those options are beyond the control of the town, like paying higher prices for food or using an income tax rather than a property tax to support government. Farmers are currently stuck paying property tax even in years where their property-heavy business produces a loss, so an income basis would help. The agriculture district protections seemed generally applauded, though Ken Miller wanted to see awareness of those programs reach beyond real estate people. Making life in villages and hamlets more desirable was also an option, though one that may take a while.

Craig Schutt, of the Conservation Board, suggested that the Conservation Board was concerned about many of these same issues, and would be willing to work with farmers to address them.

On the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) front, George Frantz noted that the Town of Ithaca had established them, but when development pressures were low, it was hard to get farmers interested in them. Some of the discussion suggested that any changes to zoning were an infringement on the rights of the current owner, and Greg McConnell suggested that some of these proposals were sleepers whose impact would only surface in a decade or so. Barbara Caldwell, the chair of the Planning Board, did note that the board had said that they'd certainly consider rezoning as properties were taken out of active farming.

Frederick Hudson and George Frantz both raised the need to keep farming infrastructure functional and farms contiguous, avoiding scattered development that makes it difficult to farm.

Evan Carpenter, who owns a farm in Dryden near the village, currently marked in the Future Land Use Plan (301KB PDF) as red suburban residential, one of the places that is facing residential pressure, talked about his perspective:

"I don't think the object here is to save farmland, it's just to slow down the exodus from the farmland. I look at the map, and everything south of Dryden, the darker green, used to be farmland... it's gone back to what it was originally intended to be by the glaciers... and it is now trees. For those that want to live in open spaces, that doesn't work, since they just have a view of the trees next to them. It doesn't work for higher-density housing either because of the elevation, there is no road infrastructure up there, pumping water uphill gets a little expensive, running the sewage back down to Cayuga Lake would be no problem, but other than that, the infrastructure isn't really there.
"West Dryden is being left as open areas, but I'm not sure who's going to mow the swampland. It's not viable ag land... once they stopped farming with horses, that's what that wetter land begins to do.
"As far as PDRs, there isn't a lot of pressure here, but once the pressure becomes so great, dairying is kind of out of the window and we're talking about veg crops or vinyards or something other than animal agriculture... No one's going to want a chicken barn next door, or a hog facility, 2000 cow dairy, 200 cow dairy, and probably not even my 50 cow dairy facility. I don't have any answers but I understand the dilemna. I thank Ken for getting the guys from Farm Credit here with some numbers, whether they agree with George's or not. I think it's good to get debate with numbers out in the open. I can see both ways - I can see where somebody doesn't want their farm values devalued, and don't want mine increased to $25000 acre building lots either. Just don't let the appraisers see that map and think I ought to be paying that kind of money."

Planning Board member David Weinstein pointed out that the Planning Board is working on an agricultural overlay for working farms in the red areas designed specifically to keep appraisers from increasing taxes to the detriment of farms. George Frantz also talked a bit about a town in Monroe County that had set up assessments specifically to benefit farmers, but that option doesn't work well in Tompkins County's countywide assessment system and also had an impact on the local school district.

Because of the lack of a quorum, the Planning Board couldn't take any action on the discussion, but the conversation seems likely to continue for a while. There was also discussion of having a group of farmers get together - after the harvest - to discuss mechanisms they felt might encourage agriculture and preserve the character of the area.

Posted by simon at June 20, 2004 2:01 PM in ,
Note on photos