Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

reprinted from the New York Property Rights Clearinghouse, Vol. 6 No. 1 (Spring 2002)

March 2002:

Farmers offer to give a little in dispute with urban émigrés

Long Warwick Zoning Battle Ends

Town Drops a Key Part of Farm Preservation Plan

By Carol W. LaGrasse

After an eight-year battle pitting farmers against preservationists, a less stringent zoning code than previously proposed met the Warwick Town Board's unanimous approval on January 24.

Warwick's farmers had engaged in a long, hard fight against a code designed to save open space by increasing minimum lot sizes by 100 percent and imposing open space zoning on farmland. They ended up with the upzoning but the town rejected the original proposal to rezone farmland from 2-acre minimum lot sizes to 10 acres, with 8 acres to be left as open space, while development was clustered in one area of the farm.

The usual irony had prevailed throughout the controversy, which began in 1994 when the Town Board began to deal with the suburban development that was stealing across the rolling farm pastures. Over the years, transportation improvements and commercial development north of New York City have brought this town near the New Jersey border into commuting distance of the metropolitan area. The upper-income people who had moved to the new bedroom subdivisions decried the loss of open space around them as more people migrated in their wake.

"Since they all live on their acre and two-acre lots, they want to close the gates," said David Rudy, a second-generation Warwick dairy farmer in an interview in October. "They've been up here six months to a year and they want to tell us how to live."

The Warwick Valley Dispatch reported on January 30 that the Town Board adopted a Comprehensive Master Plan in 1999 and the following year entertained recommendations for a zoning code to replace the 1989 regulations. A one-year building moratorium was imposed in January 2001.

The town supervisor, Michael Sweeton, said that 250 meetings were held over eight years to work out the new zoning. The Dispatch article, by Scott Webber, stated that Mr. Sweeton pointed out that the rules were geared to "preserving home occupations" instead of having industry in the town and that they would "allow affordable housing."

One of the controversies related to the zoning plan was a proposal for the purchase of development rights (PDR's) by the town, to keep the farms as open space. The program was touted as voluntary, but was tied to rules that were being simultaneously proposed to simply zone much of some farmland as pure open space. Farmers thought that they would be forced to sell the development rights to their land at an unfairly low price.

The idea of imposing transferable development rights (TDR's) on the farmers' property also surfaced. Under this concept, farmland is zoned as pure open space. The farmer is pressured to convey a conservation easement to the town and receives "transferable development rights" for which he has to locate a buyer, such as a developer who owns land in a small area of town where building would be permitted. The developer turns in the TDR's and in exchange builds somewhat more houses on his land than the official zoning otherwise allows.

"This farm would go from $2.5 million to around $800,000, just like that," said Rocco Manno, II, a dairy farmer whose family has owned their land for fifty years, according to the Dispatch last fall. The newspaper reported in September that the Manno's land could have had as many as twenty residential parcels under the old rules, but only three under the rules that had been proposed. It is unclear how the property value of the Manno farm fared under the finally adopted rules. However, large landowners are allowed to subdivide one lot off at the old zoning.

To defeat the zoning proposal, the farm families organized "LOCAL," which stands for "Landowners Opposed to Confiscation of All Land." After being refused a copy of a large overlay map of the agricultural district that was to be zoned as open space, Rocco Manno used the Freedom of Information Law to obtain it. The town officials finally turned the map over to him because its release came under the rule that once any document is publicly displayed at a meeting, it can be obtained by the public.

In October, LOCAL held a large meeting at the town hall, where this writer, Carol W. LaGrasse, the president of the Property Rights Foundation of America, spoke about the topic, "Farmers have Property Rights-What Does This Mean?" to a crowd of over 200 people and answered many questions. Kim Corkum, who chaired the meeting, allowed opponents of the farmers to freely present their viewpoints at great length.

The farmers' group also engaged the law firm of Galvin and Morgan of Delmar to analyze the proposed zoning law and present their findings. In December, attorney James E. Morgan addressed the town board, outlining "errata" in the proposed code, and explaining that inconsistencies and other problems needed work.

In mid-January, a big change took place in the mood of the farmers, according to the Dispatch. Carrying signs, the farmers proclaimed to the town board, "What are you going to give? I'll give a 50 percent upzone of my land." The outgoing town board had quietly approved some revisions at the end of December, including a change that eliminated the open space zoning. This change in town board policy paved the way for a publicized "settlement" of the controversy under the new supervisor in January.

It is unclear how the compromise plan solves the perceived "urban sprawl" problem, however. Advocates of open space zoning are already writing letters to the editor complaining about the compromise, while, on the other hand, some farm families are discouraged by the long battle and end results.

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