ELIZABETHTOWN - In a case sure to set an important precedent, an Adirondack farm has won its legal battle against the Adirondack Park Agency.
Essex County Supreme Court Judge Richard B. Meyer handed down his decision on Nov. 19 annulling the APA's actions against Lewis Family Farm, an 1,100-acre organic crop and beef farm in Essex.
The farm, owned by Salim "Sandy" and Barbara Lewis, had been fined $50,000 by the APA for failing to obtain subdivision permits for three farmworker homes they had begun constructing on the farm in 2007.
The APA held the homes, built on resource management land, constituted "single family dwellings" as described in APA law and were subject to APA regulations. In addition to the fine, the agency issued a cease-and-desist order forbidding the farm from using the new buildings.
Lewis Family Farm challenged their determination, however, on the basis that the homes were part of farm operations and, therefore, would not require subdivision or APA oversight. The New York State Farm Bureau submitted a brief to the court in support of that argument.
"The APA was very heavy-handed in slapping our farmer with this massive fine for what was reasonable agricultural activity," said Farm Bureau spokesman Peter Gregg.
In a 15-page decision, Meyer dismissed the APA's case, finding their assertion of jurisdiction to be "affected by an error of law."
The decision, which says APA regulation of single family dwellings does not apply to farm worker housing, hinges on a section of APA law that treats all structures on a farm as "one principal building."
"By specifically designating all 'agricultural use structures,' 'single family dwellings' and 'mobile homes' on farm property as 'one principal building,'" wrote Meyer, "the Legislature made clear its intent that all such structures situated on agricultural lands be treated as one and the same under the APA Act.'"
Though Meyer recognized the elaborate homes as "a unique and unprecedented effort to provide agricultural workers with quality housing [that] may not have been foreseen by the Legislature," he pointed to other cases where residential buildings on a farm were found to be exempt from zoning regulations because they were an integral part of farm operations, as stated by the Right to Farm Law.
"There is no reason to conclude that the Legislature intended anything different inside the Adirondack Park," Meyer wrote.
On behalf of the APA, State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's office had argued that since the APA Act defined "single family dwellings" and "agriculture use structures" separately, the two were mutually exclusive.
"Also without merit is the Agency's determination that single family dwellings and agricultural use structures 'are treated as separate and distinct uses under the APA Act,'" wrote Meyer, dismissing that argument.
As a result of Meyer's judgement, Lewis Family Farm is no longer required to pay the $50,000 fine and may now begin using the farmworker homes. The Lewises have been touting the victory on their Web site, www.sblewis.com.
Counsel for Lewis Family Farm, John Privitera, said the decision was correct in interpreting the APA Act, as well as the Right to Farm Act and the state constitution.
"It establishes, once and for all," said Privitera, "that the APA cannot regulate the development of agriculture, including farm worker housing."
"The ruling sends a strong message to the APA that they can't push farmers around," said Gregg in agreement. "Agriculture is a viable activity within the park."
Still, not all are thrilled about the ruling. John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said the organization is concerned about the effect it may have on resource management land; a classification he says is meant to protect Adirondack forest and farmland from being subdivided into suburban development.
"Farmers can now build an unlimited number of houses," said Sheehan. "Unplanned development of that sort is a mistake."
Sheehan said that the Adirondack Council would encourage the Attorney General to appeal the decision and urge the legislature to affirm APA jurisdiction over farmworker housing, stressing that the goal was to maintain the integrity of Adirondack farmland.
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the APA is reviewing the decision with the Attorney General's office, but would not comment on whether an appeal would be filed.
Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau is urging the state to forego an appeal.
In a letter sent to Gov. David Paterson Nov. 21, Farm Bureau President John Lincoln suggested that, especially in light of looming cuts in the state budget, it would be unwise to appeal the case.
"The state does not need to waste resources pursuing a case that has been definitively decided in favor of the farmer," Lincoln wrote. "Don't we have bigger fish to fry?"