Farmers may be celebrated in certain corners of New Paltz, but perhaps not so much in Town Hall. It’s not that town employees are pulling up the welcome mat, but the zoning code and related planning processes can make developing legitimate agricultural uses harder than it should be. That’s the upshot of a review of town ordinances performed by staffers at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, according to what town building inspector Stacy Delarede told Planning Board members April 25. “The zoning is not very farm-friendly,” she said.
The problems likely begin with the fact that there is no definition for “agriculture” in the town zoning code. There’s one in the clearing and grading law, Delarede said, but to move things forward, the official definition needs to match the one used in state documents.
While the state department holds considerable sway over how farms in official agricultural districts are regulated, receiving an official objection isn’t the end of the line. Delarede said that some rules would likely be changed in response, but she’s not in agreement with everything the state officials recommended. For example, she said, “They said don’t require site plans for farm markets,” but she thinks that would overlook the very real land-use impacts involved, particularly along the busy state roads that run through New Paltz. She sent an official response from the town and has not yet received a reply back.
Regulating farm uses in a community like New Paltz is tricky, since it’s not the typical agrarian town for New York. Delarede said that the long and costly planning process is not farmer-friendly, but that there remain uses which should be given a hard look in any case. For example, while she described agritourism uses — such as corn mazes — as “legitimate” for farms, she added that they are also “out of control” and should be studied before granting approval. Nevertheless, Delarede conceded that the New Paltz code is “probably the most restrictive” in the county.
“Just growing crops isn’t always enough,” Delarede said, and there should be a clearer way to add things like wind energy and farm markets to the mix. What she suggested was the idea of a simplified site plan process, which might be similar to the one that’s been in place for some years, but tailored to agricultural uses.
Farm markets are not the same as farmer’s markets, where a number of people gather in one place to sell farm products. A farm market is associated with a specific farm, such as Wallkill View or Dressel’s. There’s no requirement that everything sold at a given farm market be grown or produced on that farm, and it’s not unusual for a given market to have products from a number of farms to diversify the offerings, as well as other retail products. Where farm markets and town zoning sometimes come into conflict is in the zoning requirements that allow agricultural uses in all districts, but not retail sales. What’s more, farm markets don’t have to be on the same parcel as the farm itself to qualify for the state’s agricultural exemptions.
An application to create a farm market for Rivendell Winery a few years ago might have passed muster, but for the simple fact that there was no farm — in this case, winery — to hang that agricultural exemption upon. While that might seem like a common-sense demarcation, not everything in the town’s code is so logical. As it stands now, a farmer would need to obtain a permit to sell on his or her own property, but peddling the produce anywhere else in town is perfectly acceptable without any paperwork filed at all.
Under the simplified site plan process, if a plan doesn’t involve anything likely to cause impacts — such as enlarging or adding structures, expanded parking or other paved areas, or changes to traffic volume or pattern — the inspector can recommend a waiver from the full site plan process. Planning Board members make that decision, so they could choose to require a site plan if they felt it was warranted. Delarede said later that less than five simplified site plan applications are made each year. A simplified process for farms might similarly shorten the planning process if nothing in the plans triggered a more extensive review.
Weddings at farms are becoming more popular, and that’s something being considered on a case-by-case basis at the state level, Delarede told board members. To determine if the use is customary for the farm or incidental to its business, state officials look at the percentage of farm product being used for the festivities. “Once it hits a certain threshold, it counts as an agricultural use.” Unlike the rules for farm markets, only agricultural products grown on that specific farm would count towards hitting that benchmark.
Board members batted around some ideas about what kinds of thresholds might be appropriate for setting around a simplified process, but more discussion among them and Town Board members will be necessary before a formal proposal is unveiled at a public hearing.