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Buying the Farm
Lang Phipps | Photo: Ellen Watson | July 30, 2014
More than 30 years ago, the Peconic Land Trust began its mission to save Long Island farmlands. On the eve of the organization’s annual Through Farm and Fields event, taking place Aug. 3 on Shelter Island (peconiclandtrust.org), writer Lang Phipps reports on the Trust’s most recent accomplishments, and how the East End’s towns and residents are joining them in the fight.
It’s been a good two years for the Peconic Land Trust.
Last August was the 30th anniversary of the organization, founded in 1983 to conserve Long Island’s heritage of working farms and pristine natural beauty. In May, the Southampton Town board unanimously agreed to purchase the development rights of a two-parcel property of 33 acres in Water Mill, owned by the estate of Charlotte Danilevsky, that the Land Trust was in contract to buy.
“The Danilevsky acquisition is the beginning of a new era in the towns’ efforts to protect farmland,” says John v.H. Halsey, who founded and leads the Peconic Land Trust. As a champion of Long Island’s farms and the people who work them, it helps that John shares a surname with one of the great local farming families, which began with Thomas Halsey and his wife in 1640. Like all early farmers, Thomas “subsistence farmed,” but as methods and transportation improved, successive generations of East End farmers—including the line of Halseys leading up to today—sold and exported agricultural products.
All of John’s high school summers were spent working on a farm in Water Mill owned by Charlton Halsey, a distant relative. “What struck me was Charlton’s ingenuity and independence,” says John. “He could do almost anything. I have tremendous respect for people who’ve devoted their lives to farming, because it’s not easy.”
The Peconic Land Trust has taken up the groundbreaking work—started in 1974 by the South Fork Land Foundation, a supporting organization of the Trust, and now replicated nationally—of ensuring that farmland stays in farming families through tax-relief strategies, based on the sale of development rights to the town or county.
It’s been a bumpy tractor ride.
At first, the county considered buying farmland and leasing it back to farmers, but the latter bridled at the idea of losing their independence to become, in effect, serfs to the county. They also needed the land as equity to borrow against for seed and equipment purchases.
Recognizing that farmland owned by farmers would be better managed, the county restricted the farmland by buying the right to development, the element that was driving up the value of the land and creating a crippling tax quandary for families who didn’t want to saddle their heirs with a stratospheric inheritance tax that would force a sale of part or all of the land to cover it.
It seemed like a win-win: Protect the land by stripping the rights for developers to use for multihome projects, and preserve a way of life that has sustained farming families and defined the character of the region for a century.
But the South Fork, where an improbable blend of “classes” exists, is a mix of both clear and murky agendas. Proud working people—in essence, the part of the 99 percent with dirt under their fingernails—and individuals with balance sheets exceeding the GDP of some foreign countries live shoulder to shoulder, as neighbors. So the best intentions of good people who wanted to keep the South Fork true to its roots were thwarted by a simple oversight: Land that can’t be developed but doesn’t have affirmative requirements specifying that it be farmed can be bought by nonfarmers.
For John and others, it was a sobering moment when private estate owners and developers started buying up adjacent parcels of protected land at prices that exceeded its agricultural value to groom into oceanic swaths of perfect lawn. Even before this annexing happened, some shrewd opportunists took advantage of a late-1990s court ruling that established that raising polo ponies qualified as agricultural use on repurposed land, and stretched the statute to its limit by building massive personal riding facilities, and—try to imagine a more polarizing alternative to the gritty farm ethos—polo fields.
Which brings us back to Danilevsky, the property. The overture to this crowning moment for the Peconic Land Trust was the Pike Farm triumph. In 2010, the Trust kept this Sagaponack family growing vegetables as they had for decades through a combination of research and what the organization does best.
“I’ve always viewed our work as problem-solving,” says John, “understanding the people who own the land, their goals and needs, and trying to craft a solution where the best, most valuable portion of their land is protected.”
The Pike property—which prior to the sale was being leased to farmers Jim and Jennifer Pike by the Hopping family, the original owners—was teetering on the brink of a bittersweet sale to pay estate taxes. The Land Trust was able to purchase it in a creative deal in which the town and county bought the development rights. With private donations from the community and funds from the South Fork Land Foundation, the Trust came in with $1.7 million of the $6 million purchase price, with $4.3 million from the town and county. Imposing additional restrictions (on equestrian and nursery use, for example), an innovation the Land Trust learned from Vermont and Massachusetts, brought the value of the land down to $22,000 from about $120,000 an acre—a price the Pikes could afford to pay.
In the Danilevsky sale, according to John, “What we were able to do, by virtue of what we’d done before with the Pikes and other families, was to take advantage of rights left on the table. We got the town to step up and partner with us and buy these additional rights to bring the value of this farmland down to about $25,000 an acre—a price we can realistically offer to a farmer.”
With the successful closing of the Danilevsky deal, which will be formally announced this month, the Peconic Land Trust has done something with historic impact on our region, and set a precedent for the whole of New York State. The partnership with the county and town’s Community Preservation Fund—which raises money via a 2 percent tax on real estate transfers and has given generously—made the Pike deal happen. It’s a signal achievement for the Town of Southampton, but it can also be translated into success for other towns and hamlets with regard to their own zoning laws.
Of the 11,000 acres the Trust and its partners protect, about half is farmland. The rest is shoreline and woodlands of ecological and historical significance. Their mission addresses “everything that helps define the character of the community,” according to the Trust’s founder.
Of all these rich resources, the most threatened at the moment is farmland for farming. “That’s why we put such an emphasis on it, because we’re seeing the unraveling of 40 years of protection happening before our very eyes,” John explains.
For perspective, consider that there were 120,000 acres of worked farmland in 1940; in 2012 there were 36,000. Another story is told by the fact that 38 percent of these acres are dedicated to nursery, floriculture and sod production—and 19 percent yield vegetables, potatoes and melons. The economic realities of the region have turned local farms into providers of goods for the very estates that would drive them out of existence.
Preserving farms isn’t about keeping something quaint intact, like the late Penny Candy Store in Water Mill, which closed due to rising real estate values. Agriculture production is still serious business for Suffolk County, which until recently was the highest-grossing New York State county in terms of agriculture products sold. Local food is a hot commodity, and even those not particularly partial to the preservation of farmland desire “farm-to-table” fare.
They find it in abundance here.
But the barriers for farmers, especially new farmers, are huge. The Trust supports new farmers at its Deborah Ann Light Preserve in Amagansett and its Agricultural Center in Southold. “We’re doing everything we can to help new farmers to get established,” says John, “and we’re also helping established farmers broaden their access to farmland.”
Based on the Danilevsky success alone, the survival of South Fork farming would seem to be more likely than ever. But don’t expect the local heroes of the Peconic Land Trust to be crowing about it. They’re busy enough trying to save one of the last best places anywhere.