Development Rights Purchase Assures Farming on Pricey Land

A stretch of farmland in Water Mill that will be preserved by the Town of Southampton. Peter Boody photo

With local efforts to save open space for farming sometimes spoiled by wealthy neighbors who buy the land to extend their yards, provide screening, block noisy, smelly or dusty farming activity or put up a large building like a horse barn that they claim is for an agricultural purpose, the Town of Southampton has been pioneering a legal process that keeps farmland available for farmers.

In the latest example, the Southampton Town Board on March 12 voted unanimously to buy the “enhanced development rights” for 20 acres of prime farmland on Seven Ponds Road in Water Mill, just east of County Road 39, owned by Corwith Farms Inc. for $2.55 million in Community Preservation Funds.

Possession of the “enhanced” development rights allows the town to restrict the use of the property to food-production farming. That means no polo clubs, horse breeders, sod farms, tree farms or nurseries can move in. Selling off those extra rights to the town also lowers its value enough so that tenant farmers can afford to rent it for their operations.

Also, the restrictions require the property owner to actively farm the land. If it lies fallow — sometimes an attractor for real estate people who might be able to market the open space to a wealthy neighbor — the town can step in and put a farmer to work on it.

The 20 acres, which form a scenic vista along the “back road” shortcut between Scuttle Hole Road and North Highway, were set aside some years ago as an agricultural reserve through the subdivision process, Laura Smith, the town’s principal environmental analyst, told the Town Board during a public hearing on the proposed acquisition.

Its fee title was never acquired by the town, nor were its development rights, she explained; it was preserved only as required open space, with its use broadly limited to agriculture as defined by the state’s Agriculture and Markets law.

As Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni noted, some neighboring owners have bought ag reserves to serve as buffers for their properties. “They often become a 30-acre backyard or a row of apple trees,” he said.

“Or a large structure is placed on it and labeled ‘ag use,’” Councilwoman Christine Scalera joined in.

John v. H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, thanked the board for considering the acquisition, which he said was the 12th or 13th instance of the town buying “these enhanced easements, assuring the land will be farmed.”

He said Southampton Town was the first municipality in New York State to “apply this additional protection on farmland.” The Peconic Land Trust itself pioneered it here, after having acquired two parcels totaling 33 acres of farmland in Water Mill from the estate of Charlotte Danilevsky in 2014. The Land Trust stripped the land of its development rights, including many non-food agricultural uses, and sold them to the town for safekeeping; it then sold one tract to farmer Hank Krazewski III in 2015 and the other in 2016 to Jim and Jennifer Pike of Pike Farms.

Farmers in the Hamptons face fierce economic winds. Farmland here goes for $150,000 to $250,000 an acre, Mr. Halsey explained, “A big price for a food-production farmer to pay,” he added.  Thanks to the town’s enhanced development rights purchase, “This land will now be available to farmers in the future for food production and at an affordable price.”

Stripped of so much of its development value, the land’s restricted value will be about $25,000, Mr. Halsey said, “and that’s a huge reduction. That will be capped as well to insure the land will continue to be affordable and accessible.”

Asked by Supervisor Jay Schneiderman what it costs for a farmer to rent agricultural land in the Hamptons, Mr. Halsey said it depended on improvements: if a deer fence is in place, it could be $400 an acre per year, he said. The Corwith property has no fence and would rent for between $150 and $200 a year.

Baffled why anyone would buy an agricultural parcel that might cost $300,000 an acre that rents for $200 a year, Mr. Schneiderman asked Mr. Halsey to “explain the economics.”

“Well, there’s no limitation on who can buy it,” Mr. Halsey replied. “The folks who are buying it at that number are not buying it for an economic purpose.”