Knox committee tackling issue of farm abandonment

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Volunteers pick romaine lettuce in a greenhouse at Patroon Land Farm in Knox during an event on Sept. 19 for Hunger Action Month. Volunteers included state government officials, members of the Regional Food Bank and members of the state’s Council on Hunger and Food Policy.

KNOX — When is a farm not a farm? 

The answer, at least for farms in the town of Knox that have been grandfathered into non-agricultural districts, is five years after farming operations have ceased, at which point those farms are considered abandoned and subject to whatever zoning laws apply to that district, all but forever preventing that land from being farmed again. 

Other non-conforming businesses, meanwhile, have just six months.

The Knox Planning Board is considering increasing the threshold for other businesses to three years and eliminating the separate provision for farms altogether — so that farms would not be subject to abandonment provisions. 

But that change, says Gary Kleppel, a farmer and retired professor who chairs the town’s agricultural advisory committee, could make it so that farms are considered the same as any other business and effectively assumed to be abandoned after just three years instead of five.

Planning board Chairman Tom Wolfe told The Enterprise earlier this month that he had asked the committee to “suggest some options for the [planning board] to consider,” which it’s doing in the form of a report. Kleppel said that report is expected to be formally presented to the planning board at its meeting next month. 

“I think it’s really important that we give full consideration to how to keep as many of these food-producing farms in operation, even if they go offline for a little while,” Kleppel told The Enterprise this week. 

Although approximately half the town is zoned agricultural, according to a zoning map, several farms, including Kleppel’s sheep farm and the much-larger Patroon Land Farm, exist in non-agricultural areas, allowed by the fact that they were there before the non-agricultural zoning was established. 

And, although the town has been allowing greater leeway to farms than it does any other type of business, Kleppel believes that even a five-year allowance — or any allowance that is based in time — might go against how the state has historically enforced non-conforming land-use laws over the years. 

“It’s pretty clear that … there have to be two criteria that determine if land is abandoned,” Kleppel said. “One is that it’s not being used for the use that it was grandfathered in for. If you’re a pizza restaurant and you stop making pizza, and you’re in a residential district, that’s one indication that you’re not doing that use anymore.

“The second,” he said, “is that you have clear intent, or demonstrate clear intent, to abandon the use. So, if on my farm I knocked down all my barns and I don’t have animals or crops growing on my farm, that’s clear intent that I’m not going to be using that farm for the use that was grandfathered in.”

One example of the court enforcing evidence of intent is in a 1949 state Supreme Court decision on a lawsuit involving the city of Binghamton and a junkyard that’s existence was threatened by an abandonment clause. 

“Time,” the decision reads, “is not an essential element of abandonment although the lapse of time may be evidence of abandonment. It is a universally accepted principle that mere nonuse of property over a period of time, when unaccompanied by any other acts indicating an intention to relinquish or abandon title thereto or ownership thereof, does not amount to an abandonment.”  

The distinction of lapsed time versus intent is important because it’s not uncommon, Kleppel said, for farmers to have to temporarily stop farming their land, given that they’re subject to not only the usual pressures put upon any commercial operation, but things like weather and climate. 

The Capital Region is currently experiencing “the longest drought that I can remember,” Kleppel said, making it hard for farmers to produce. “We’re in a place where the food supply is now being really challenged by climate change.”

He added that the committee is doing even more research beyond the abandonment issue — all under wraps so far, he said — to try to address “scarce agricultural land in our town, which is part of our county and part of our country.”

“There’s some serious questions that our committee is going to be dealing with knowing that Knox is one of the few places where agriculture is really celebrated in the Capital Region,” Kleppel said. 

More Hilltowns News

  • Incumbent Rensselaerville Justice Gregory Bischoff won re-election by only nine votes, trailed by his Republican opponent, Richard Tollner. Although the Albany County Board of Election has released its official general election results, some ballots have been sent back to voters to be cured of any defects, and the final total for the Rensselaerville justice race won’t be known until the end of the month. 

  • Steep drop-offs on either side of where Gifford Hollow Road meets Switzkill Road in Berne threatens the traveling public, Berne resident and former New York State Department of Transportation employee Joel Willsey warned the town in a letter, since no guardrails or signs are in place to prevent someone from driving in. 

  • Nearly a month after Election Night, the Rensselaerville justice race votes have been finalized, securing incumbent Gregory Bischoff as the winner by a margin of just nine votes over his opponent, Republican Richard Tollner. 

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