Ag districts key to farm viability

Because farming is heavily land dependent, agriculture is easily susceptible to restrictive land use regulations. Average farms in Jefferson County operate on approximately 200 acres with many farming more than 1,000 acres. Fees, taxes, zoning restrictions, junk laws and other land-use regulations can impact a farm to the point where it could struggle to stay in business financially or lose its ability to farm its land.

Jay Matteson

In 1971, Article 25AA of New York’s Agriculture and Markets Law, known as the Agricultural Districts Law, was enacted. It became the centerpiece of state and county efforts to preserve, protect and encourage development and improvement of agricultural land. Language that calls for the creation of certified agricultural districts is a key piece of the law. Agricultural districts help local municipalities put tools in place that allow farmland to remain available for agricultural production. Across the state, approximately 23,360 farms on 8.6 million acres – 30 percent of New York’s total land mass – are enrolled in certified agricultural districts. In Jefferson County nearly 200,000 acres are in certified agricultural districts.

The program starts at the local level. A County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board reaches out to the farm community and helps farmers enroll their property. The board reviews enrollment applications and ensures that the land has high potential for agricultural use. The land must be able to support commercial agricultural production. Once the board reviews applications, it submits them to the county Board of Legislators, which reviews the plan. After a public hearing, it adopts a proposal to establish or continue, with or without modification, an agricultural district.

Farms that successfully enroll in a certified agriculture district may receive several benefits:

  •  State agencies are mandated, as a matter of policy, to encourage maintenance of viable farming in agricultural districts.
  • Limited exercise of eminent domain and other public acquisitions
  • Limits solid waste facilities on farmland
  •  Limits government powers to impose benefit assessments, special ad-valorem levies or other rates or fees in certain improvement districts or benefit areas
  • Limits local governments in their powers to enact and administer comprehensive plans and local laws, ordinances, rules or regulations that unreasonably restrict or regulate farm operations.
  •  Farms may apply for agricultural assessments that consider the agricultural capability of the soils on the farm versus the potential development value. This may help reduce their property taxes.

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In Jefferson County, there are three agricultural districts. District No. 1 covers the southeast corner of Jefferson County from the Black River south to the county borders and from U.S. Route 11 east. District No. 2 covers all of Jefferson County north of the Black River. District No. 3 is the southwest corner of the county from the Black River south and to U.S. Route 11 west. Each district is reviewed every eight years. Land may be added or subtracted from the district during the eight-year review. Each June, the Jefferson County Board of Legislators allows for addition of new lands to existing districts. More information about agricultural districts is available at www.co.jefferson.ny.us. The Jefferson County Department of Planning administers the ag district program. Information also is available at the state Department of Agriculture and Markets website at  www.agriculture.ny.gov/AP/agservices/agdistricts.

Without the certified agricultural districts program in Jefferson County, many farms would have faced very restrictive junk laws that would limit the size of opening in their barn walls, or limited the ability of the farm to have ponds to allow livestock to drink, as a few real examples. Farms would have faced fees for waterlines that ran across their property that would have caused financial hardship. Recently, a farm was able to move forward with plans to erect a private windmill to generate electricity for farm purposes.

It is critical to protect our farms and farmland for the future. Agriculture helps grow our economy in Jefferson County. Once farmland becomes pavement, it is very difficult to bring it back.

Jay M. Matteson is agricultural coordinator for the Jefferson County Agricultural Development Corp. He is a lifelong Northern New York resident who lives in Lorraine. Contact him at coordinator@comefarmwithus.com. His column appears monthly in NNY Business.