Town seeks designation for bay bottom
Agricultural districts across New York give farmers special protections for their land. In green are the districts that have been approved in Suffolk County.

Courtesy photo

Town seeks designation for bay bottom

Story By: GLENN ROHRBACKER
3/21/2019


 

The Town of Brookhaven, in a resolution passed by the town board last month, is requesting that certain areas at the bottom of Bellport and Moriches bays be designated as official agriculture districts with the New York State Department of Agriculture. 

The lands under the Bellport Bay are town-owned and are leased to commercial farmers, who mainly grow oysters and other shellfish. Since the land is government-owned, there is no tax benefit, but the designation gives certain protections and opportunities to farmers. According to the NYSDA, the purpose of the designation is to promote a future of agricultural use for certain lands. The benefits are given to dissuade the conversion into non-agricultural uses; the benefits don’t prevent changes, but aim to make farming the most economically viable option for certain parcels. The designation includes protections against overly restrictive local laws, government-funded acquisition or construction projects, and private nuisance suits involving agricultural practices.

Supervisor Ed Romaine said the designation would make Bellport Bay viable for the return of a booming oyster farming industry, which he said was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. He added that the inlet in Bellport Bay allows for a better venue due to the cleaner water and the changing makeup of the bay. 

“This is an opportunity to restore an industry that was once a major industry in Suffolk County that has essentially died out,” Romaine said.

The supervisor added that he supports the industry due to the many benefits oysters provide the bay. Oysters are natural water filters, which can clean 50 times their weight in water per day. They also promote a marine ecosystem and are used for commercial sales. Each year, the town sponsors several organizations that farm oysters to clean the bays, including Friends of Bellport Bay, which receives thousands of oysters per year. Thomas Schultz, president of FoBB said he welcomes the desidgnation and the more oysters in the bay the better. 

Romaine was not aware of any other water lands that are designated agricultural districts in New York. According to the NYSDA, about 70 percent of state agricultural districts are farmland, but it did not specify what the other 30 percent are. The underwater lands in Bellport and Moriches bays account for about 15,000 acres total. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation allowed the town in 2015 to lease up to 40 acres of underwater land to farmers, of which about 10 acres is currently split between four farmers.

As of Jan. 1, 2019, 159 agricultural districts existed statewide, containing approximately 25,673 farms and over 9.08 million acres (about 30 percent of the state’s total land area). Each county is responsible for processing the requests and setting a time to approve requested districts. March is the month Suffolk County accepts their proposals, and the Legislature will need to make the final determination.