A resident’s concern that a state law may prevent the town from regulating the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary’s use of its property in Willow under the local zoning code, thus enabling the WFAS to expand its operations if it chose to do so, has prompted a review of the matter by the town attorney.
In a presentation to the Town Board at its September 18 meeting, Gay Leonhardt, who resides in Willow and owns six acres of land adjoining the sanctuary’s 23-acre parcel, asked the council to confer with an official of the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets (DAM) about the department’s classification of the WFAS as a farm. The Ulster County Planning Department had previously approved the sanctuary’s application for inclusion in an agricultural district, paving the way for the state’s designation of the property.
The state official, Bob Somers, has visited the WFAS property and has reportedly written to town officials on two occasions, in 2011 and 2012. Although in both letters Somers invited Woodstock officials to discuss ramifications of the DAM’s classification of the sanctuary, said Leonhardt, no such discussion has taken place.
The potential significance of the DAM’s classification lies in a provision of the state’s Agricultural Districts Law, which has the stated intent of protecting farmers against local laws “which unreasonably restrict farm operations located within an agricultural district.” In New York, when state and local laws conflict, the former generally take precedence. Under the town’s zoning law the WFAS lies in an R-3, or “low-density residential,” district. “Agriculture, including the keeping of fowl or animals,” is a permitted use in such districts.
Town attorney Rod Futerfas, who attended the board meeting, agreed to review relevant documents and render an opinion on the advisability of a discussion between town and state officials about the extent of Woodstock’s regulatory powers under the local zoning law. “At issue here is whether the town of Woodstock can apply its own zoning laws to provide for quality of life and the protection of property values,” said Leonhardt in her statement to the board.
The WFAS is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to rescue and rehabilitate farm animals that have been abused and to educate the public about the mistreatment of animals that are raised for food. In recent years, donations and grants have accounted for all but a fraction of the sanctuary’s annual revenue of more than $900,000. A classification system for tax-exempt nonprofits categorizes the sanctuary’s activities “animal related” and “animal protection and welfare (includes humane societies and SPCAs).”
According to WFAS cofounder Doug Abel, who spoke at the meeting and in an interview the following day, the sanctuary’s farming-related activities consist of the incidental sale of compost, manure, and wool, which are produced only by chickens and sheep. While those sales yield minimal revenue, they satisfy the DAM’s criteria for classification as a farm.
“Town law is lopsided against providing a good home for animals,” said Abel in the interview. “The law would rather have animals housed in a single large barn than in several smaller buildings, so we looked into the agricultural designation for some protection. The local law is poorly suited for farming, regardless of whether the animal sanctuary is here (in Woodstock) or not.”
Abel added that the WFAS has not invoked its agricultural status in its dealings with town agencies including the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).