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  • Tom Holman

New York’s Agricultural Law and Local Zoning Rights

The New York State Constitution provides that the state shall encourage those who intend to develop and improve its agricultural lands for the production of food and other agricultural products. In 1971, the Legislature found that local land use regulations were inhibiting farming from the extension of nonagricultural development into farm areas. As a result, the Legislature enacted the Agriculture and Markets Law (“AML”) for the sole purpose of protecting, conserving and encouraging the “development and improvement of agricultural lands.”

Among other things, the AML gives county legislative bodies the power to create “agricultural districts” that may be entitled to statutory protections and benefits, including with respect to local zoning laws. AML §305-a actually prohibits local governments from enacting and administering plans, laws, rules or regulations that unreasonably restrict farm operations within agricultural districts unless the public health or safety is threatened. AML §305-a contains the following mandate:

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 [AML Article 25-AA], 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.

It should be noted that only “farm operations” are protected by Section 305-a. The term “farm operation” is defined in AML §301(11) as meaning land and on-farm buildings, equipment, manure processing and handling facilities, and practices which contribute to the production, preparation and marketing of crops, livestock and livestock products as a commercial enterprise.

If a local government is deemed to be unreasonably interfering with farming operations within an agricultural district, the Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets is authorized under the AML to bring an action against it. This is done solely on a case-by-case basis. Some factors that the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (the “Department”) will consider are in examining whether a local law is unreasonably restrictive, include, but not limited to: whether the requirements adversely affect the farm operator's ability to manage the farm operation effectively and efficiently; whether the requirements restrict production options that could affect the economic viability of the farm; whether the requirements will cause a lengthy delay in the construction of a farm building or implementation of a practice; the cost of compliance for the farm operation affected; and the availability of less onerous means to achieve the locality's objective. The Department also takes into account any relevant standards established under state law and regulations. Because a reasonable exercise of authority in one locality may translate into an “unduly burdensome restriction” on farming in another the reasonableness of a local law depends on the totality of circumstances in each case.

If it is determined that a local law or ordinance unreasonably restricts or regulates farm operations in an agricultural district, and that public health or safety is not threatened by the regulated activity, the Department will notify the local municipality and attempt to resolve its concerns while addressing the local government's interests. If consensus is not reached, the commissioner may bring an action in New York State Supreme Court to enforce the provisions of Section 305-a or may issue an order to comply pursuant to AML §36.

Some notable court decisions on AML §305-a include:

In Town of Lysander v. Hafner, 96 N.Y.2d 558 (2001), the court was faced with deciding whether AML §305-a superseded a zoning ordinance in the upstate town of Lysander as applied to the owners and operators of a commercial farm in an agricultural district in the town. The case arose out of a town zoning ordinance that prohibited the farmers from installing migrant workers for the farm. The intended housing did not comply with the town zoning ordinance which required “all one-story single family dwellings” to have a minimum living area of 1,100 square feet. The town had initially granted the farmers a temporary building permit which it later refused to extend and instead, commenced an action for an injunction precluding the farmers from using the migrant worker housing. The farmers alleged that the zoning ordinance unreasonably restricted farm operations within the meaning of AML §305-a and that the town failed to show that its restriction on mobile homes was necessary to protect the public health or safety.

The Supreme Court, Onondaga County, granted summary judgment to the town, permanently enjoining the farmers from using mobile homes as migrant worker housing without building permits and certificates of occupancy. The Court of Appeals reversed this decision. In its decision, the Court of Appeals heavily relied on the Department’s determinations that mobile homes used for farmworker residences were protected “on-farm buildings” and the town's zoning code, insofar as it prohibited the use of housing that was less than 1,100 square feet for farm labor housing on farm operations, unreasonably restricted such farm operations. The court also determined that the town had not shown that the public health or safety was threatened.

A few years later, and in reliance upon the Court of Appeals' decision, the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Inter-Lakes Health v. Town of Ticonderoga Town Board, 13 A.D.3d 846 (3d Dept. 2004), held that where a municipality seeks to administer a zoning ordinance that is in conflict with the policy objectives of the Agriculture and Markets Law, the inconsistent zoning law is superseded by AML §305-a(1).

While AML §305-a does not preclude all local regulations that affect farming operations within agricultural districts, the reach of AML §305-a is quite broad. The Department has also determined the construction of “on-farm buildings” and the use of land for agricultural purposes should not be subject to site plan review, special use permits or non-conforming use requirements, State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code, or compliance with State Environmental Quality Reviews when conducted in a county adopted, State certified agricultural district.

Holman Law is general counsel to Sustainable Aquafarms, an environmentally sustainable business engaged in the production, marketing and distribution of high quality, pesticide-free produce, antibiotic-free seafood, and energy at facilities in Berlin, New York and Hagerman, Idaho.If you are opening a farming operation, as defined by the AML, and your property is located within an agricultural district, you may be eligible for some of the exemptions from local and state laws that the AML provides. You may also be able to challenge any local laws which “unreasonably” restrict your farming operations. Contact an experience attorney to discuss your needs.

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