Southampton Town Board Considers Farmland Protection Strategy, Balks At Reinstating The AG-PDD

The Southampton Town Board considered protections for aggricultural properties this week. KITTY MERRILL

When Southampton Town crafted the Planned Development District zoning tool almost 20 years ago, officials included an agricultural component.

The so called AG-PDD’s stated goals included encouraging and protecting agriculture in Southampton Town, providing farmers with ways to access equity in their land, and reducing suburban sprawl.

In what Supervisor Jay Schneiderman described as a repeal “sweeping in nature,” the Town Board abolished the PDD legislation in 2017, capturing the agricultural component along the way.

During a work session on October 1, members of the Town Board mulled the reinstatement of the AG-PDD, in a discussion with Deputy Town attorney Kathleen Murray. Since its authorization in 2001, the town enacted six AG-PDDs, she said, noting that the goals of the original law, as it pertains to farmland, haven’t changed.

PDDs in general offered a developer a use not contemplated by zoning, one that would also offer a required community benefit, Mr. Schneiderman pointed out. The AG-PDD doesn’t contemplate any change in zoning uses, he continued. “All it does is preserve a yield.”

The supervisor speculated that at the time of the specific PDD’s creation, there might have been broad upzonings proposed and farmers were concerned about a tremendous loss in the value of their properties. Maybe, he mused, farmers would be able to only build 15 houses on their land, rather than 30. Farmers at the time, in an attempt to outrun an imminent upzoning, looked to subdivide land into residential lots. To keep that from happening, Mr. Schneiderman said, the town created the zoning tool. “To keep the farmers farming and not subdividing the land for development, we created this tool,” he said

It was an effort to preserve yield to avoid upzones, Ms. Murray concurred.
Right now, the supervisor assured, there are no upzonings under consideration by the board.

The key issue, in terms of reinstating the AG-PDD, he said, is whether adopting the zoning mechanism would require the town to make offers on agricultural properties. Would there be a mandate directing the town to initiate the purchase of development rights?

With land values skyrocketing, the supervisor pointed out, “In some areas, the prices become so high, we just can’t do it. … We want to keep farmers farming, but sometimes the value of these lots, an oceanfront farm, can be beyond our ability. We want to help, but within our means.” It’s critical that the town isn’t forced to acquire land outside its abilities, the supervisor emphasized.

Right now, there is a process for purchasing development rights to farmland. “I’m concerned that in granting the easement (the PDD) that we’re bound to purchase them,” Mr. Schneiderman worried.

“We’re not,” Town Planning Director David Wilcox asserted.

Sometimes the town and the farmer can’t reach an agreement on a price, the supervisor noted. The code says if the town wishes to purchase, it shall make an offer, Mr. Wilcox said, reading from the code section. “If you’re not happy with the agreement, you don’t reach an agreement,” he said. However, in a specific adopted AG-PDD there’s conflicting language that says if the landowner requests, the town shall be obligated to offer to purchase development credits or the entire property at fair market value.

“That’s the section I’m concerned about,” the supervisor said. “Suddenly a property, because we’ve given an AG-PDD, we’re obligated to at least acquire one of the lots we might not have otherwise acquired.”

Town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer explained PDDs were crafted as an incentive zoning tool, meaning the developer could derive a use while doing something for the town. With an AG-PDD, the farmer gets a benefit in terms of retention of yield, meaning how many lots his property could comprise. Mr. Schneiderman said he was uncertain what the benefit to the town would be. The farmer got protected with the property’s density frozen in time, but, the supervisor said, “the town wasn’t protected.”

The town’s protection, Ms. Scherer observed, was keeping farmland from being developed.

The advantage of the PDD, Sagaponack farmer Lee Foster explained, “is to allow the farm family to plan for the future.” The instruments of the government that related to upzoning were, she added, “a crisis for us.” Having the tool in place reflects the amount of concerted effort on the part of the farmers to make it fair, she recalled, adding, “If you can’t come to terms, the farmer’s going to move out of the easement and subdivide property … And that’s, of course, not what we want.”

The creation of the PDDs gave farm families “a real sense of the dynamic interest in the town for preserving farms,” Ms. Foster recounted.

If the town moves forward with some method of preserving yield for farmers, a new title for the measure should be put forth, the supervisor opined, and a new mechanism needs to be crafted.

“We did away with PDDs,” he said. “This could be a farming incentive of some kind. We’ll come up with a better name.”

He tasked Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni with putting together a committee to explore alternative methods for protecting farmers’ land value.