Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 28, 2018

NY Appellate Court Rules that Agritourism Permits Did Not Violate Public Trust Doctrine

This post was authored by Amy Lavine, Esq.

A New York appellate court decision issued in March upheld amendments to Suffolk County’s purchase of development rights program, which was established in 1974 to preserve agricultural land. Under amendments passed in 2010 and 2013, the Farmland Committee was authorized to grant special permits for land from which the county had purchased development rights to allow commercial horse boarding and equine operations, alternative energy systems, agricultural tourism, agricultural processing facilities, and special events such as hay rides and agricultural education tours. Although an environmental organization alleged that these amendments were illegal, the court found that the special permit regulations did not violate the public trust doctrine because they allowed only limited uses that were consistent with the public trust nature of the agricultural land.

Preliminarily, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the public trust doctrine applied to the development rights involved in this case, as the county had acquired these development rights for public use, not in its “corporate capacity.” The court found that the special permit regulations didn’t waste public property or violate the public trust doctrine, however, because granting land use permits didn’t amount to a transfer of the county’s development rights and because the special uses that were permitted under the amendments either qualified as agricultural uses or were sufficiently related to agricultural production to be consistent with the public purposes of the purchase of development rights program.

Although one judge dissented with regard to the allowance of processing facilities and the marketing of processed products, the majority believed that these activities did not intrude on the public trust nature of the land because the amendments limited processing to “on-premises and locally-grown agricultural products” with local agricultural products making up at least “51% of the input used.” As so limited, the court found that these sorts of processing activities were reasonably consistent with land used for agricultural production, and it offered as an example the sale of apple pies baked with locally-picked apples.

Finally, the court noted that the challenged amendments vested the Farmland Committee with a gatekeeping function, requiring it to review permit applications for structures, farm stands, facilities, and special events and to ensure that proposed uses complied with the agricultural land use restrictions. Additionally, in the event that a decision of the Farmland Committee violated the public trust, permit applicants and nearby property owners could challenge its decision on an as-applied basis.

Long Is. Pine Barrens Socy., Inc. v Suffolk County Legislature, 159 A.D.3d 805 (2d Dept. 3/14/18)

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