In Albany County, planners of ag districts hope more farmers will join

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Buzzing bees circle a honeycomb at Black Sheep Honey’s apiary in Knox. The business, which sells honey and beeswax products, hosted New York State’s first annual honey bee festival.

ALBANY COUNTY — Next month, county lawmakers will vote on whether or not six parcels of land should be added to Albany County’s three agricultural districts. Members of the county’s Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board say that the program offers a wide range of benefits to farmers and agricultural businesses, but fear that not many know about the districts, to which parcels must be voluntarily added.

The county’s agricultural districts were born in the Hilltowns: the first one was created in Berne and Knox in 1974. Now known as District 1, it was followed by District 2 in Westerlo and Rensselaerville, and District 3 in Bethlehem, Coeymans, Cohoes, Colonie, Guilderland, and New Scotland.

Property may be added to one of the three districts in two ways: through a full review every eight years, or through an annual review of proposed parcels, said Laura DeGaetano, the senior natural resource planner for Albany County.

The in-depth method of full review of a district every eight years is set to occur at a different year for each district.

“That’s a very comprehensive review of the district,” said DeGaetano.

Either landowners or members of the Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board, which DeGaetano serves on as a planner, may submit land to be added or taken out of an agricultural district in this in-depth process.

However, a different method of adding land to a district was created in 2004, when the county legislature enacted an annual 30-day review period that allows landowners to submit property to any of the three districts. The review process begins on Feb. 1 and lasts for 30 days.

The Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board reviews submitted requests and then submits its recommendation to the county legislature to be voted on. The decision is finally approved by the state’s Agriculture and Markets commissioner. “We’ve been adding parcels every year since the 30-day period began,” said DeGaetano.

This year, the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board reviewed seven parcels of land that were submitted, and determined that all but a two-acre parcel on West Woodstock Road in Berne could be added. The two-acre property, which is under the estate of Rudy Stempel, was submitted with the intent to use it for poultry raising.

The board’s determination is based on whether there is viable farmland, said DeGaetano; part of the reason the land on Woodstock Road was rejected is because there was no agricultural activities taking place there, DeGaetano said.

On May 29, a public hearing was held on the board’s decisions, but no public comments were made. DeGaetano anticipates that the legislature will vote on the board’s recommendations at its regular July meeting.


The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Beeswax products are on display at the state’s honey bee festival at Black Sheep Honey in Knox. The apiary has applied to be part of Agricultural District 1 in Albany County this year.


In Berne, 120 acres owned by Elbridge Bushnell on Woodstock Road were approved by the board to be added to Agricultural District 1, with the intent of farming hay there.

In Coeymans, 97 acres were approved to be added for grain and dairy farming off of Route 143 and Stanton Road for Stanton Legacy Farms LLC.

In Knox, six acres located at Tim Norray’s apiary Black Sheep Honey on Pleasant Valley Road were submitted.

In Rensselaerville, three parcels owned by Philip Spinelli on Route 352 were submitted for growing vegetables, totalling 41.5 acres.

The board will also soon be starting its 300-day review for District 3. In this process, both landowners and board members can propose to add new parcels, or request land be taken out of the district. According to Tom Gallagher, a board member and Agriculture Program leader at the Cornell Cooperative Extension board, this process is anticipated to begin in July. Gallagher, who grew up on a dairy farm in Rensselaer County, now lives on the City of Albany’s Normanskill Farm, where he raises beef and chicken for educational purposes rather than for profit.

The process begins with public notification in newspapers and posted at different locations in the district, Gallagher said. This is then followed by a 30-day period in which municipalities, board members, or landowners can request that parcels be added or taken out of the district.

The board then reviews these requests, and submits a report to the legislature, which, as with the annual period, will hold a public hearing and later make its own findings before the proposal is sent to the state’s Agriculture and Markets commissioner.

While Gallagher believes that board members will reach out to farmers they know who may want their land in the district, he also anticipates removing property from the district due to increased development.

“Especially when you think about the towns that are involved,” he said.

One parcel that is expected to be removed is on Route 85A in New Scotland where the Hilton Barn once sat before it was moved across the street to save it from demolition. A vegetable farm — and the Levie farmstand — used to be there. Now, the land is the setting for a new development.

“So we’ll take them out of the ag district because it’s a permanent conversion,” he said, of the land no longer being used for agriculture.

Advantages to being in an ag district

Being in an agricultural district offers both protection and financial incentives: the opportunity for tax exemptions, and shielding from eminent domain or nuisance lawsuits, according to DeGaetano.

“It’s sort of like a right-to-farm law,” said Gallagher, although he noted that the county also has such a law.

Another benefit, he said, is that, if the property is in a lighting or sewer district, it can be taxed only for where it runs along the property.

Farms in these districts are also more protected from regulations deemed unreasonable or could have such regulations changed to better serve the business, and even receive public funds “to construct facilities that encourage development,” according to a statement on the state’s Department of Tax and Finance webpage.

Land in a district is also eligible for an agricultural assessment that could lead to lower taxes, said Gallagher. Property outside a district may also quality, but must remain in use for agriculture for the next eight years.

Those with either $10,000 in sales revenue or $50,000 if there is less than seven acres on the property, qualify to be in the agricultural values assessment program, said Gallagher, so long as they are in a district. Horse-boarding businesses and start-ups also qualify under certain limitations.

The opportunity to be in these districts is open to a variety of agricultural uses, from renting land to farmers, sawmills, farming crops, livestock, or greenhouses, he said.

“It could be honey, it could be maple syrup … ,” said Gallagher. “Now if someone has a garden in the backyard, that doesn’t qualify,” he added, but noted that there is no minimum acreage to be in a district.

Gallagher said he believes many farmers may not know the law exists, and hopes that more are made aware of it. He said a farmer had just spoken to him about not knowing about the program.

“They work 72 acres and they don’t even know about the agricultural district,” he said.

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