Background on the Issue of Agriculture Districts and the Ballston Controversy

This blog is very fortunate to have readers with considerable expertise on issues of concern who are willing to take the time to share their views.

I am very grateful to Lew Benton for the following text:


The Times Union’s August 7 article about development proposal in County Agricultural District No. 2 – and referenced in your recent Blog entry – raises more questions than it answers.

The story reports on a proposal to bring public water to serve a proposed large lot residential subdivision off Goode Street in the Town of Ballston. The proposed subdivision is in Ag. 2, near or adjacent to the Knight Orchard, a long established working farm. In fact the Knight Orchard has been part of Ag. District 2 since its original creation in 1974 and is one of the County’s best managed farm operations.

As a staff member of he Saratoga County Planning Board I was involved in establishing all five of Saratoga County’s original agricultural districts and subsequently, beginning in 1995, served as the administrator of the state Agricultural Districts Program in the Dept. of Ag. and Markets.

A little history.

Shortly after the Agricultural Districts Law was enacted by the state legislature in 1971, the staff of the Saratoga County Board, Corporative Extension and local commercial farm operations began a multi-year effort to map the remaining agricultural base. We promoted the concept of agricultural districting as a county shaping device, as a means of preserving and protecting viable ag lands and the agricultural economy and for the open space, habitat, clean air and water shed benefits farm lands and associated wood lots provide.

In 1972 the County Board of Supervisors approved our plan for Ag. District No. 1 (mostly in the Town of Northumberland) and in early 1973 the NYS Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets certified it. It was one of the first districts in New York State. Today it exists as 59,000 acre uninterrupted farm landscape in Northumberland, Monroe, Saratoga , Stillwater and a small property in northeast corner of Wilton. It hosts 152 farms and 36,000 farmed acres.

The Ballston District, District 2, was established in 1974. Today it has 160 farms on 52,000 plus acres.

Over time the County Planning Board would work to create five districts which captured the significant share of all remaining viable, active farm lands. We failed – interestingly enough -only in the Town of Halfmoon. But that’s another story.

Subsequently the original five districts were consolidated into the two we have today. It should be noted that districts must undergo a eight-year review process that essentially mimics the creation process and requires action by the Board of Supervisors and the NYS Dept. of Agriculture and Markets. So there is a very significant investment in all this and actions which compromise the districts should be taken seriously.

The districts also played (play) an important role in channeling development into the service corridor where major water and sewer systems were put in place. In fact, the County Sewer District No. 1, originally established as a water pollution abatement strategy, is flanked on its east and west by existing ag. districts. All of this was designed to guide growth when the County land use plan was prepared and adopted in 1978.

In many cases the agricultural district boundaries were made coterminous with rural zoning districts as more and more towns came to adopt their first zoning regulations.

Perhaps the biggest threat to these districts – other than an unstable agricultural economy and school taxes – is conflicting land use and the expansion of public water and sewer systems.

That is why lands in agricultural districts and their farm operations have certain protections. The Agricultural Districts Law protects from restrictive zoning, nuisance law suites and allows for sound agricultural practices. It created a system of property assessment based on the agricultural production value of the farm land, not on its development potential and it gave the commissioner of ag. and markets the authority to limit the introduction of compromising infrastructure.

Thoughts and Questions

Sec. 239-n of the General Municipal Law requires County Planning Board review of any proposed subdivision within 500 feet of a farm operation in a state certified agricultural district. So it would be very interesting to know (1) if the Town referred the proposal to the County Planning Board, and (2) what did the county recommend.

It is the County Planning Board’s role to identify development impacts on farm operations and suggest means of mitigation. The law requires the preparation and filing of an Agricultural Data Statement with all review agencies. Did the town and county planning boards receive such a statement and how did it influence their respective reviews?

The story references the town attorney saying that the subdivision was consistent with the zoning ordinance and was thus permitted even though existing policy did not allow for public water hookups. I assume that the subdivision was approved showing individual wells, not public water. A different water supply would require an amended subdivision plan, state Health Dept. review, etc. None of this is referenced in the story.

Did the Town Planning Board require the approved plan to reference the ag. district and alert potential buyers that they might be exposed to standard agricultural practices including noise, odors, etc. that they would be hard pressed to complain about?

And what did the Town Planning Board have to say about all this during its review and did it consider any recommendations the County Planning Board may have made?

The backstory to the TU’s piece leans on the politics involved in all this and potential conflicts.

Of course we all know that political intrigue has surrounded many controversial land use issues in Saratoga County and the same actors seem to always pop up.

Exit 14, the more recent attempt by the City’s previous administration to secretly provide water to a Wilton subdivision backed by the political class are two of the more well known and particularly troubling. This is not to suggest that is the case in Ballston but it sure is interesting.

Below I include a summary of the Ag. Districts Law for your readers who may still be awake.



Since 1971, the Agricultural Districts Law, Article 25AA of the Agriculture and Markets Law (AML), has reflected the cornerstone of State and county level efforts to preserve, protect and encourage the development and improvement of agricultural land for the production of food, fiber and other agricultural products.

As of January 1, 2016, there are 210 State certified agricultural districts created in 53 of New York’s 62 counties. These districts capture about 8.8 million acres of land, including over 6. 3 million farmed acres on 25,632 farms. By any measure, the Agricultural Districts Program is a significant and substantial farmland protection tool.

The New York State Constitution directs the Legislature to provide for the protection of agricultural lands. The Agricultural Districts Law fulfills this constitutional mandate, in part, by providing a locally initiated mechanism for the protection and enhancement of farm lands as both a viable segment of the local and State economies, and as an economic and environmental resource of major importance.

Several benefits accrue to farm operations conducted within certified agricultural districts. Chief among these are:

The obligation of State agencies, as a matter of policy, to encourage the maintenance of viable farming in agricultural districts;

Limitations on the exercise of eminent domain and other public acquisitions, and the advance of public funds for certain construction activities;

Limitations on the siting of solid waste management facilities on land dedicated to agricultural production;

Limitations on the power to impose benefit assessments, special ad valorem levies, or other rates or fees in certain improvement districts or benefit areas;

Requirements that direct local governments to realize the intent of the Agricultural Districts Law and to avoid unreasonable restrictions in the regulation of farm operations when exercising their powers to enact and administer comprehensive plans, local laws, ordinances, rules and/or regulations; and

Requirements that applications for certain planning and zoning actions impacting a designated farm operation within an agricultural district, or on lands within five hundred feet of such farm operation within an agricultural district, include an agricultural data statement designed to allow the review agency to evaluate any possible impacts of the proposed action on farm operations.

The Agricultural Districts Law establishes a land classification system used to assign agricultural assessment values to qualified properties both within and outside district boundaries, creates a process for the review of agricultural practices, discourages private nuisance lawsuits arising from agricultural practices determined to be sound, provides for advisory opinions as to whether particular land uses are agricultural in nature,and requires disclosure to prospective grantees of real property that the property is in an agricultural district.

The Agricultural Districts Law also defines the procedure for district creation and review.

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