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As local as it gets: The Town of Ithaca Agricultural Protection Plan

As regular TCLocal readers know, we are deeply concerned about our local ability to feed ourselves, and we have published a number of articles on the need to preserve local agricultural production.

There was some good news on the local food security front this fall. One recent critical success was the election of antifracking candidates in several Tompkins County towns, which for the moment at least has challenged the claimed right of area landowners to extract short-term profits at the expense of the long-term health and agricultural productivity of local farmland. The other development was the November 2011 approval of the Town of Ithaca Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan (AFPP) by the Ithaca Town Board and the preparation of similar plans for the Towns of Lansing and Ulysses.

A copy of the Town of Ithaca AFPP can be found here:

http://www.town.ithaca.ny.us/draft-agricultural-and-farmland-protection-plan

Adoption of the AFPP is important not just to the twenty thousand residents of the Town of Ithaca but also to the thirty thousand residents of the City of Ithaca, because it puts the Town firmly on record in support of preserving the remaining agricultural land in Tompkins County situated closest to City residents; food produced in the Town is as local as it gets in Ithaca.

Even more importantly, the Town of Ithaca AFPP provides a preview of the plans currently in preparation in Ulysses and Lansing, which are aimed at preserving their much larger agricultural acreage and are being prepared by the same team of experts (Monika Roth and Debbie Teeter of Cornell Cooperative Extension with the assistance in each Town of municipal staff and volunteer ad-hoc committee members). These other AFPPs, funded like Ithaca’s by grants from NYS Agriculture and Markets, can be expected to share many of the same qualities that make the Ithaca plan such an important contribution to our local food movement, but on a larger scale.

The formal purpose of the AFPP is to identify precisely the agricultural lands in the Town most deserving of protection in order to lay the groundwork for future requests for funding, in particular funding for the purchase of development rights (PDR) to compensate landowners in return for an agreement to keep the land in production and out of development. Along the way, however, it also makes important contributions to agricultural policy and to our access to knowledge about the Town’s agricultural resources while laying the groundwork for improved relations with the Town’s farmers.

First and foremost, the Ithaca AFPP clearly enunciates a Town policy supportive of agriculture and the preservation of existing farmland:

The Town of Ithaca recognizes that agriculture is an integral part of the Town’s economy and environment, provides locally grown food and other agricultural products, and enhances the quality of life for Town residents. The Town proactively promotes a diversity of farm types, seeks the long-term preservation of the Town’s agricultural-land resources, supports the economic viability of the farming community and the profitability of each farm, values the local public agricultural research and educational resources, and encourages the general public to understand and support local agriculture.

This strong commitment to the preservation of agricultural land in the Town comes at a critical time in the process of preparing the long-awaited update to the Town of Ithaca’s Comprehensive Plan, the current version of which dates from 1993. As noted in the AFPP,

It is anticipated that the recommendations from this AFPP will be incorporated into the updated Comprehensive Plan and that the entire AFPP will be included as an appendix to the Comprehensive Plan.

Inclusion of the AFPP recommendations in the revised Comprehensive Plan should result in the assignment of higher priority to the preservation of active and potential farmland in the Town and less to residential development that would take land in the Town out of production. This is good news for everyone concerned with the distance food has to travel to come to consumers in the City of Ithaca, which for many reasons is already a more logical place to develop additional housing.

Beyond setting a general policy of protecting farmland in the Town, however, the Ithaca AFPP also puts the Town on record as adopting several specific goals of the Plan:

  1. Promote the availability of locally grown foods and other agricultural products for all residents, including limited income families

  2. Retain and encourage a diversity of economically viable farm types

  3. Ensure long-term protection of agricultural-land resources for agriculture, open space, and scenic resources

  4. Encourage public understanding and involvement

  5. Promote wise land use and waste management on agricultural land

To accomplish these goals, the AFPP sets forth a number of concrete objectives, the job of implementing which will now fall to the Town Board and Town Planning Department.

Some key objectives are:

  • To revitalize the Town Agricultural Committee (the AFPP includes the draft of a new Ag Committee structure designed to help local farmers fit meetings into their schedules)

  • To designate a member of the Town staff as the “go-to” person for farmer interaction with the Town

  • To revise local zoning, building, and signage laws to decrease development pressure, reduce conflict between farms and non-farming neighbors, ease restrictions on farm construction projects, and promote income through farm stands on local roads

Specifically, the AFPP sets forth the following plan for implementation:

  1. Strengthen the relationship between Town farmers and Town staff

    • Encourage farmer representation on the Town Board, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Conservation Board

    • Designate a Town staff person to be a farmer contact

    • Educate Town of Ithaca staff and decision makers regarding the needs, benefits, and operational aspects of agriculture and how these are affected by the Town’s permitting processes

    • Ensure that Town staff is respectful and courteous in dealing with the agricultural community

  2. Support the implementation of the Town of Ithaca Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan

    • Adopt the Town of Ithaca AFPP as part of the Town of Ithaca’s current Comprehensive Plan update

    • Encourage the Town’s Agricultural Committee to take an active role in the implementation of the AFPP

    • Actively seek State, Federal, private, or other sources of funding to assist in implementing the recommendations in this AFPP

    • Use the Implementation Chart below as a list of implementation activities and to establish time frames and expectations for implementation

A copy of the Implementation Plan (including the Implementation Chart referred to above, which assigns specific time horizons and responsible organizations for each element of the Plan) is linked from here:

http://ibiblio.org/tcrp/ag/TOI-AFPP-Implementation-Plan.pdf

The Plan includes some 50 recommended actions to be carried out by partnerships of one kind or another between the Town of Ithaca, the Town of Ithaca Agricultural Committee, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, New York State, the New York State Department of Conservation, the Soil and Water Conservation District, the Tompkins County Farmland Protection Board, and the Tompkins County Council of Governments, and it specifically identifies which of these players will need to be involved in implementing each recommendation. Among the steps to be taken are actions intended to moderate traffic around farms, encourage new smaller-scale farming, promote agritourism, improve retail sales (including sales from roadside stands), provide listings of land for lease, encourage shared infrastructure development, and make the Town government more farmer-friendly. There are also steps to encourage community gardening and educate the public regarding the rights of farmers.

The following actions are identified in the Plan as both “especially critical to supporting agriculture in the Town” and capable of being carried out by the Town acting alone, without depending on other organizations:

  • Revise Zoning and other Town Ordinances (e.g., Sign Law) to accommodate farm stands, year-round farm markets, greenhouses, value-added product operations, home food production, U-picks, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and agritourism sites

  • Review and revise regulations pertaining to structures to accommodate farm operations (e.g. Sprinkler Law, use of rough-cut timber, property-maintenance law)

  • Reactivate and support the Town of Ithaca’s Agricultural Committee

  • Enhance zoning as a tool to control non-agricultural development on or adjacent to agricultural land

  • Continue implementation of the Town’s current agricultural conservation easement acquisition (PDR) program for appropriate agricultural parcels that have been targeted in the Policies and Procedures Manual for the Agricultural Land Preservation Program

These steps are not only completely under the Town’s control; they are (with the exception of the PDR program) without significant financial impact, and given their importance, we can hope that the Town will soon begin work on them. But there are a number of other recommendations in the Plan that can also be carried out simply by changing existing Town regulations or by adopting certain policies (for example, changing the signage laws to allow better advertising of farms, or limiting extension of municipal sewer and water in agricultural areas to discourage residential development). Such reforms will have little or no budgetary effect, and there should therefore be no impediment to their implementation by the Town now that the AFPP has been adopted.

Beyond setting important new policy directions, the AFPP also provides a wealth of critical information about the Town’s agricultural resources that would otherwise be difficult to assemble. In addition to a historical and statistical overview of farming in the Town, the AFPP also includes a collection of maps showing the Town’s agricultural resources at a level of detail ordinarily available only to Town and County planning staffs. The maps of Zoning, Agricultural Soils, and Existing Land Use / Land Cover are particularly interesting. For convenience, we’ve packaged the AFPP maps into a single PDF file that can be downloaded from here:

http://ibiblio.org/tcrp/ag/TOI-AFPP-Maps.pdf

While our concern in TCLocal is with local food production, it should be noted that much of the public interest in preserving farmland in this area is based on quality-of-life considerations. In a survey of Town residents conducted in 2009 and included in the AFPP, 70 percent of the respondents rated the existence of farmland as “Important” or “Very Important” to their quality of life, with a similar combined rating (72 percent) for “Ability to buy locally produced farm products.” An even higher proportion (91 percent) gave this combined rating to “Scenic views,” which is relevant because farmland is essential to the existence of a number of the Town’s best views as identified in its scenic views inventory. In another part of the survey, 82 percent of Town residents said that they “Support” or “Strongly Support” spending Town money on “Protecting farmland from development.” Thus the preservation of farmland for relocalized food production in our region is building upon a general recognition of farming as an important component of the local character.

Whatever the current motivation, it is encouraging to see the adoption of land use policies that will help promote local food production. Everyone concerned with sustainability in Tompkins County should applaud the already adopted Town of Ithaca AFPP and the Lansing and Ulysses plans currently nearing completion.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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