NY Town’s Proposed Zoning Irks Farmers

4/23/2011 10:00 AM

Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

New York Correspondent

ELBRIDGE, N.Y. — Proposed changes to zoning ordinances have raised the ire of some of the farmers in this small farming community located between Auburn and Syracuse.

Penned by town attorney Dirk Oudemool, the initial draft of proposed changes was not spurred by any residents’ complaints or current conflict between agricultural and residential use of adjoining land. Oudemool said that he wrote them per the town board’s request and in an effort to prevent problems between farmers and rural residents as the town grows. He added that the ordinances have not been updated since 1970.

A three-and-a-half-hour public town meeting April 14 drew farmers who “were saying I’m anti-farmer,” Oudemool said in an interview last week. “I’m very comfortable with what we’ve done. The farmers in Elbridge got it all wrong.”

He blames, in part, an April 13 article in a local newspaper for causing what he views as a misunderstanding between himself and the farmers.

“(The author) distorted the whole thing and got all the farmers in an uproar and it’s over misinformation,” Oudemool said.

Area farmers, however, have a different view.

“The problem is the town attorney,” said one of them, Rob Hill, owner of Hill-Villa Farms. “He has done this in another town, Camillus, and was never challenged on it.”

Hill-Villa is a 200-year-old, 700-acre crop farm.

Oudemool has served as town attorney in Camillus, also in Onondaga County. Hill is determined that Elbridge doesn’t follow suit in changing its ordinances in ways he views as restrictive to normal agricultural operations.

“This isn’t our first problem with him,” Hill said. “He tried to get through a noise ordinance that prohibited a lot of our farm activity and that failed.”

Town of Elbridge Codes Enforcement Officer Bob Herrmann Jr. does not see any major conflict between the zoning changes and agricultural businesses in Elbridge.

“There are new zoning maps that have been drawn up and proposed,” he said. “There’s a new designation, rural-residential, that we’ve never had before. It would impact ag very little but it will impact commercial operations in residential areas.

“They’ve got to stick to commercial areas. Agriculture is always exempt from everything so I don’t understand what the problem is,” Herrmann said. “The newspaper shed a bad light on it. Agriculture would have a better standpoint with this than with the existing code.”

Herrmann believes that the new rural-residential district designation would help improve the tax base and help segregate agricultural use of land from residential use.

Hill criticized the proposed changes, calling it Euclidean zoning, which classifies land use by geographic areas and tends to be more restrictive than other styles of zoning.

“Even the county has moved away from that,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it wouldn’t have been fine even. The county wants a more flexible zoning.”

He favors a study written by American Farmland Trust, “Planning for Agriculture in New York: A Toolkit for Towns and Counties,” co-written by Cornell University and the New York State Department of Ag & Markets.

“That study has a more flexible approach and modern approach since ag is constantly changing and the type of zoning proposed by Oudemool doesn’t recognize that,” Hill said.

Oudemool submitted an earlier draft to the Department of Ag & Markets in September 2010 for review and received the department’s recommendations in October.

“The original draft the town sent to Ag & Markets came back with six pages of things the town was supposed to fix and the town didn’t fix them,” Hill said. “The attorney is trying to misrepresent these ordinances.

“His vision of agriculture — I don’t know where it comes from. Onondaga County Planning Board sent three recommendations, encouraging the town to consider the 2010 guide, and they recommended that the town board address the comments presented by the Ag & Markets. Even the county planning board said Elbridge has not addressed the comments from Ag & Markets. Oudemool did a lousy job.”

Oudemool said the allegation that the board is disregarding the 2010 development guide “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

He said he agreed with some of Ag & Market’s suggestions and some he didn’t. The setback for buildings housing farm animals is an example of where he agreed.

According to Oudemool, in his original document he retained the original ordinance’s setback of 150 feet for buildings housing farm animals. The Department of Ag & Markets suggested it was too restrictive, so Oudemool reduced it to 100 feet.

“That seems to be generally consistent with the setback Ag & Markets has found to not be unreasonable,” Oudemool said. “Farmers are better off now than under the existing code.”

Oudemool also said that the proposed changes would exempt farm operations from subjection to site plan review, unlike the 1970 code.

“It’s an incredible benefit to the farming community,” Oudemool said. “Everyone else in business must go through site plan review, justification for location and for performing that activity there. It’s a very detail-oriented process that exercises some control over how a business is operated on a property. There will be none here, although Ag & Markets says we can do it.”

Some farmers expressed concern about farm stores being required to have a black-topped parking area like other businesses in town; however, Oudemool said that farm markets would be exempt from that requirement as well.

Oudemool disagreed with the Ag & Markets’ suggestion that farmers should be permitted to post signage off-site from a farm store.

“It’s prohibited in town for everyone,” Oudemool said. “Nobody can advertise their business except on their own property. Ag & Markets suggested that it’s allowed, but I think it’s discriminatory against everyone else.”

Hill believes this measure is “unreasonably restrictive.”

Oudemool also disagrees with the Ag & Markets’ rule that only 51 percent of the goods sold at a farm market must be produced on-site.

“We say all of the products sold at a farm store should be produced locally,” Oudemool said. “That could be Elbridge, Central New York or Western New York. It’s all how liberally you interpret the word locally.’ That seemed to upset some people.”

He added that he was concerned farm stores would become overrun with outside goods and compete with retail shops, which have to pay commercial rates to have their stores in a commercial area of town.

“A farm store was not intended for that but for a farmer to sell his wares from his location and not rent an expensive storefront to do it,” Oudemool said. “It’s not fair to local business folks to allow farmers to sell other goods that are found in a local store.”

The biggest change that could affect farmers would be the new zoning district. Currently, Elbridge has two districts where any type of agricultural business is permitted. In the new district, a special permit would be required and only crop farming would be allowed. The area lies closer to the village and public water is available to some of the lots.

“As time goes on, we believe people will want to build homes in and slowly farming will diminish,” Oudemool said.

He believes that addressing this possibility with a special use permit for crop production only “is a fair way to address the situation. In those areas, what obviously comes to mind is you have people living close to the crop farming and the negative impacts of crop farming becoming an annoyance, such as the migration of insecticide dust, odors from manure spreading on the crop farm and the other aspects of tilling the land. These become problematic. There’s a potential conflict that occurs.”

Hill views the town’s attempts to prevent these problems as excessive regulation which “leaves it up to interpretation of the town as to what’s offensive.”

Oudemool said that he wants spatial separation to keep the peace between farmers and non-farming rural residents.

“We try to encourage the farmers to stay in the country and discourage others who wanted to live in the country to not locate nearby,” he said. “We want to exercise some oversight for the point of promoting compatibility between pure residential use and farming operations.

“I understand farmers find that offensive because we have a Right to Farm law in New York state and, absent a farming practice that is an unacceptable farming practice, that any of the annoyances or inconveniences that occur as a result of a farming activity, New York state law says they’re not in violation of law,” Oudemool said. “Farmers take that to mean that if you live next door to my farm operation, and are offended by it, you have no right to complain. We’re trying to get farmers away from areas where people are purely residential.”

Hill believes that because Elbridge is an agricultural community, newcomers should accept what comes with rural life and adapt. Farmers should not be the ones forced to change.

“When people buy a house in Elbridge, they are given notice that they are moving to an ag community where dust, noise, odors and late hours of operation take place,” Hill said. “They know exactly what they are going to have. They know that’s what happens here.”

Some attendees of the meeting felt that the town board, led by Oudemeel’s proposed zoning changes, was trying to drive agriculture out of Elbridge, a sentiment which draws a strong reaction from Oudemeel.

“Am I trying to drive agriculture out? Absolutely not. It’s a very important part of Elbridge and Central New York and Onondaga County.

“The issue here is consideration: one land owner of another’s beneficial use and enjoyment of his or her use of property. To try to reasonably regulate, to promote compatibility so if we try to keep the homeowners away from the farmers, that goes a long way. That’s what we try to do.”

“Farmers may not like it, but I think they can live with it.”

Like Herrmann, Oudemool pointed to the very practical issue of tax base.

“Sixty-five to 70 percent of the land is used for ag, but by the same token, there needs to be an opportunity for someone other than farmers to live in Elbridge,” Oudemool said. “The town needs to build a tax base.”

He hopes that continued discussion and revision of the proposed changes can help all sides come to an amicable agreement.

“By listening to the farmers and working with them, I think that the vast majority of the provisions that are in the code are farmer-friendly,” he said.

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