As many of us continue to cocoon inside our homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, avoiding supermarkets and anyone else for that matter, Long Island farms are seeing a resurgence in interest for locally grown produce and agricultural products. In some ways farmers are sometimes better off than town and city dwellers., because farmers can produce much of their own food while those in urban and suburban environments cannot. What better way to practice social distancing and, at the same time, obtain fresh fruits and vegetables than to shop at your local farm stand?
Unfortunately, many farms on Long Island and throughout New York State remain vulnerable to onerous zoning restrictions as municipalities respond to the often vocal concerns of suburban creep and development conflict. Typically, farms operate several discrete but interdependent land uses which may include barns, farm worker housing, garages, retail markets, manure or compost storage facilities, and greenhouses, to name a few.
As it seeks to survive, however, the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural industry does not always comply with the comprehensive planning processes of most municipalities. Many times, the agricultural uses predate the zoning codes or their amendments. These situations can result in the application of existing land use regulations giving rise to potentially unreasonable restrictions to farms and farm practices. Thus, many zoning codes are unable or unwilling to allow farm operations to continue without strict compliance.
Agricultural Districts-A First Line of Defense
Article XIV, Section 4 of New York’s Constitution protects and supports farm business and agricultural production. The Agricultural and Markets Law (“AML”) was enacted in 1971 to implement that policy. In particular, the AML provides protection for farm businesses in State-certified agricultural districts. Agricultural Districts protect farmland from the adverse impact of non-farmland development. The purpose of an agricultural district is to encourage the development and improvement of agricultural land along with the production of food and other agricultural products.
AML-305-a Review- A Powerful Tool
Local governments may run afoul of the intent of the AML by limiting the type and intensity of agricultural uses in their communities and by narrowly defining “farm” or “agricultural activity.” This is sometimes problematic even in municipalities with a significant base of large, “production” level farming operations. AML Section 305-a (1)(a) provides:
“Local governments, when exercising their powers to enact and administer comprehensive plans and local laws, ordinances, rules or regulations, shall exercise these powers in such manner as may realize the policy and goals set forth in this article, and shall not unreasonably restrict or regulate farm operations within agricultural districts in contravention of the purposes of this article unless it can be shown that the public health or safety is threatened.”
Where a municipality seeks to administer a zoning ordinance in a manner that is in conflict with the policy objectives of AML by, for example, denying a building permit (pursuant to its zoning code) for mobile homes to be used to house migrant farm workers pursuant to its zoning code—the zoning ordinance is superseded by AML § 305–a (1)(a).
Section 305-a only applies to farm operations in an Agricultural District. Therefore, it remains critical for a farm operation to be placed in an Agricultural District in order to obtain this protection of the statute.
These are challenging and unprecedented times. To ensure the health and welfare of ourselves and our farms, it is important to provide them with the flexibility as future circumstances warrant. Please remember to support your local farms – at a distance.