Winery Cidery

Clarkstown Mulls A Restrictive Agritourism Law That May Benefit Only One Farm Operation

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Town’s Proposed Agritourism Law Would Benefit Only One Privately-Owned Agritourism Operator In Town, Giving A Virtual Monopoly To Red Barn Cidery At Davies Farm

By Tina Traster

At first glance, a proposed local law in the Town of Clarkstown, appears to boost agritourism in a town that is increasingly bearing the brunt of development and loss of open space. But a closer look at the fine print reveals the proposal would restrict agritourism to sites that have at least 10 acres — effectively making The Red Barn Cidery at Davies Farm  — the only eligible candidate to receive the needed approvals.

It appears Clarkstown has taken notice of its southern neighbor — the Town of Orangetown — where a battle over running a cidery has been waging for nearly three years. Rather than be caught without a clear policy or an ambiguous code, the town is seeking to pass an amendment to its zoning code that would permit agritourism uses in all residential zones, provided the site is at least 10 acres, has at least 300 feet of frontage on a state or county road, and can provide a 300-foot buffer to a neighboring residential property. Noise and lighting restrictions also apply. New parking requirements will also be incorporated into the local law.

An agricultural operation with fewer than 10 acres that wants to participate in agritourism will need to apply for a variance from the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, if the local law is adopted. Scoring a variance is a high bar.

The Town has set a public hearing on the Local Law for June 25.

Last May, Chris Davies Nevin, the great-granddaughter of the pioneering Dr. Davies, who founded the county’s notable and eponymous apple growing farm in 1883, opened Red Barn Cidery, a hard cider press. At the time, Davies Nevin said farming, particularly in a county that’s lost nearly every farm over the past sixty to seventy years, demands innovation and reinvention. The 65-acre farm, which has 4,500 apple trees spanning 40 varieties, has been producing sweet apple cider for eons but the growing demand and popularity of hard cider – and the atmospheric tree-to-table that accompanies the demand – is ripe for the picking.

Town Planner Joe Simoes at last week’s Town Planning Board meeting said the local law, if adopted, would impact the Red Barn Cidery, which has become an agritourism draw for music and gatherings. It would have to apply for the special permit to come into compliance.

Rockland County in the late ’50s had 200 farms. Today, only a handful of working farms remain. Fields over the decades have turned into housing, strip malls and warehouses.

The United State Department of Agriculture defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold during a calendar year.”  New York State does not define a farm based on acreage, though equine and timber operations require at least seven acres. Clarkstown’s Town Code  defines a farm as “any parcel of land containing at least 10 acres which is used for gain in the raising of agricultural products, livestock, poultry and dairy products.”

The Cropsey Farm, operated by the Rockland Farm Alliance, on Little Tor Road in New City is Clarkstown’s signature example of agritourism: the town/county owned farm is used for farm dinners, fairs, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and education. Clarkstown also owns the former Traphagen Farm on Germonds Road but there is little farming or agritourism happening on site. Municipally-owned properties do not need special permits, Simoes said.

The Clarkstown Town Planning Board also grappled over whether to deny agribusiness permits on county roads and allow operations only on state roads.  Planning Board Chairman Gil Heim specifically asked whether there were properties on Little Tor Road that would be eligible, saying he didn’t want to get calls from complaining neighbors. In the end, the board recommended leaving the provision that both state and county roads are part of the eligibility for a Special Permit for agritourism.

Smaller operations in Clarkstown that are cropping up for the production of wines or hard cider will face a far greater hurdle for agritourism.

“It seems the law Clarkstown is proposing is done with good intentions to promote agritourism and farming,” said Marvin Baum, who recently purchased a former vineyard and apiary that has not been farmed in New City for more than three decades. “But from the language it appears the law will do more harm than good for the very few farms that are left.”

Planning board members last week, who were asked for their recommendation on the law, questioned the town planner as to what other properties the law would impact. They also suggested the law limit agritourism to acreage where at least 50 percent of the land is actively farmed. The Planning Board serves as advisors when a local law is being considered by the town.

The town planner said the only other site exceeding 10 acres was “an historic farm Old Route 304” that the county is looking to acquire. Simoes was referring to a 32-acre property with the pre-Revolutionary Peter DePew sandstone house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that was recently put on the market for sale. RCBJ previously reported on the property on Old Route 304 because farming advocates are trying to preserve what they say is “one of the last remaining parcels that is not only farmable but is a classic, historic property.”

Still, smaller farm entities say they have not had a voice and were not invited to participate in the framing of the new law.

“All farmers should be involved in conversation,” said Baum.

In Orangetown, Darin and Elizabeth Van Houten have been fighting for three years over a cidery they opened during the pandemic to great fanfare for people seeking an outdoor refuge but to the chagrin of neighbors who objected to the noise and increased traffic on Sickletown Road in Pearl River.  For nearly three years, the battle unfolded in courtrooms – and the cases are still pending in lower and appellate courts. But the focus shifted back to the Town of Orangetown last year when Rockland Cider Works and the Van Houten Farm Trust hired a consultant to submit a proposal seeking a text amendment to the town zoning code that would allow agritourism, wineries, cideries and other agricultural uses by special permit on any five-acre-plus property in a residential R-40 or R-80 district with many restrictions on setbacks, lighting, parking and accessory uses.

Orangetown continues to hold contentious public hearings that pit Rockland Cider Works’ effort to get a text amendment to the zoning code and a special permit against adamant neighbors who oppose the zoning change.

In Clarkstown, farming operations on more than 10 acres wishing to run agritourism activities will need a Special Permit, if the law is adopted. “Agricultural Activities,” according to proposed new law, include production and preparation of market crops, livestock and livestock products as a commercial enterprise. Examples include field crops, vegetables, fruits, plant nurseries, and Christmas trees.

Agricultural operations also include “those activities engaged in, by, or on behalf of a farmer in connection with any furtherance of the business of agriculture or farming.” Examples include tillage, planting, harvesting and marketing; construction of farm structures permitted by local and state building code regulation.

Agritourism is defined in the proposed zoning code as “activities that link travel and leisure with the products, services, and experiences of agriculture on sites conducting Agricultural Activities.” The definition is the proposed code says agritourism is conducted for the enjoyment or education of the public and primarily promotes the sale, marketing, production, harvesting, or use of the products of the farm operation. Examples include hayrides, food trucks, music, farm tours and events, designed to support farm operations, and farm wineries. Farm wineries include farm cideries under New York State law.

Clarkstown’s Comprehensive Plan identifies farmland protection as part of the Town’s Open Space program priorities. Farmland protection initiatives are identified as helping agritourism, air quality, and food sovereignty, as well as educating residents about the town’s history.

Rockland County Planning Department Weighs In

In reviewing the proposed local law, the Rockland County Planning Department deemed the 10-acre threshold too restrictive given there are only a handful of farms left in Rockland County, and even fewer that are 10 or more acres. It also said the requirement of 300 feet along state and county roads was also too prohibitive, adding these parameters could lead to a further decline of farming and farm-related activities in the county.