Only two candidates running for Grand Island Town Board — Jennifer Baney and Peter Marston — contacted the Grand Island Farms Cooperative Trust to discuss their thoughts on the value of agriculture on Grand Island. What follows is a round table discussion with those candidates from this past weekend, as they responded to several topics of concern to us.
Town Code and agriculture
GIFT: In 2011 the Town adopted a Right-to-Farm law which recognizes that Grand Island has a strong rural heritage, and farming is an important industry in the town. After the law was adopted, about 90 farms on Grand Island were included in an Erie County agricultural district. Town law is now unreasonably restrictive and inconsistent with state law regarding agricultural districts.
Do you support a comprehensive, open and transparent process where Town law is updated to make it compatible with NYS law about keeping agricultural animals and other agricultural activity on the Island?
Baney: The first thing that jumps out at me is the fact that it sounds like we are not in compliance. So we have to look at it. It’s not a question of, “do you support it?” If we are not in compliance there is that duty to look at it. When you say 90 farms, I don’t see that number dropping. Some people thought farm to table or eating local was a trendy thing. But this is a way people want to live, it is not a trend. It’s not something that is popular and will wane in a couple of years. I don’t see that number decreasing or this fading away. I think we look at it similarly to how we have had to look at our master plan, which should overall be supported by all sides, making sure we’re doing things in a wise and right way. We should definitely look at it, there is an obligation to. When we look at it, we have to make sure the right people are at the table to guide and look at it with us. I can’t be an expert on everything. We need to utilize the resources we have on the Island combined with government to find out what’s best for Grand Island.
Marston: I made the statement at the Planning Board on the record that I felt our town Ag laws were antiquated, and they were incorrect and not consistent with the way we should be going forward. I got the whole planning board to basically agree. The fact that you can have an R1A lot but still need a permit to keep a couple chickens doesn’t make sense. There was a lot of discussion about different animals. A chicken is different from a horse which is different from a goat. It was evident the code needed to be fixed.
GIFT: Should the Town adopt Cornell University’s “Backyard Poultry and Livestock Rearing Zoning Recommendations” which outline the number of animals per acres by type and weight? These recommendations were adopted by the NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets, and are used by them when they visit a farm in an Ag district to conduct a sound agricultural practice review.
Baney: I would have to look at their recommendations first, but I assume if it’s coming out of Cornell it’s pretty reputable. I think just for neighbor relationships, we don’t want anything to be tense. We have friends who have agricultural animals, and some others are thinking about getting them, and over there they are very excited about it and I have not heard anything negative. It’s kind of like a unifying thing. Also from the perspective of the animals, I want to make sure that if people are doing this, they are also providing a good environment for the animals. I don’t want someone having animals in a space that is not appropriate or bothersome for the neighbors, and also not ideal for the animals. So if there are recommendations in terms of acreage or space where it can be reasonable, I would like to see those guidelines because that part is essential.
Marston: The planning board had a discussion about that. The Cornell research came up, and our thought was why start from scratch when Cornell has a solid baseline. Maybe we have to tailor it to match our zoning, but it’s a solid blueprint.
GIFT: Town Code Chapter 145 about farming was adopted in 2011. Section 5 is a dispute resolution provision meant to resolve complaints between farms and their neighbors. Unfortunately the Town never put together any mechanism under that section of law to receive complaints, hold a dispute resolution hearing to receive evidence, and render formal binding decisions. Would you recommend that the Town Board appoint a formal farming dispute resolution board with administrative powers to resolve neighbor disputes and provide guidance to the Town Board, rather than just the current advisory board that the supervisor selected without input from the Town Board?
Baney: If this board is going to be making decisions of that level, the board would have to be independent and not controlled by the supervisor. If there is guidance from the state or county on issues, it should be followed to a “T” to really make sure everything is done on the up-and-up. No secret appointments. The more transparent it can be, and the more diverse of a group in terms of pulling from a variety of groups, but also making sure we have people there with strengths and abilities to make these decisions, is essential. It cannot be just a club of people who get together and tell others what to do.
Marston: I think if the advisory board was properly done, and it had proper appointments by the entire Town Board made in a transparent way, it would be more effective than it is now. Right now it’s a black bag, not transparent by any means. As far as side-stepping the Town Board, pretty much every board except the Zoning Board of Appeals, is responsible as an advisory board to the Town Board. The ZBA is independent and can render its own decisions.
GIFT: Then should the Town Code Chapter 145 farming dispute resolution panel have ZBA-like independent authority?
Marston: It wouldn’t be a bad thing. It depends on who is on the panel and how they get appointed. Is it a stacked deck? It must be balanced and representative of the community in order to make an informed decision. If it’s strictly a panel of only Ag interests, it wouldn’t be fair. I always push for diversity. That’s how the Planning Board is. We have real estate people, we have a builder, we have a couple of engineers, we have someone really good with environmental, so our diversity makes us stronger because we see every side. You want the same thing with Ag, you need to see all sides. It’s funny to see how our board works, because everyone has a different mind-set, but we all get to the top by different directions. We take different paths but we come together at the top. That’s how it should be.
Town Master Plan and farming
GIFT: The Town’s Master Plan affects land use policy on the Island, including zoning. The Town’s Long Range Planning Committee, which controls the Master Plan process, was appointed by the town supervisor. Their meeting minutes are hidden in the Town’s web site, and can only be found by keyword searching. Do you think the Master Plan process has been open and transparent?
Baney: No. Clark, Patterson & Lee was the group hired by the Town to oversee this whole process, and they offered to do the community center plan for free. Pete sat in on those interviews, and Clark Patterson bombed when they brought in three different groups to see who was best. I have not been impressed by Brian Kulpa from Clark Patterson. I opened the paper two months ago, and saw where he is the democratic candidate for Amherst town supervisor. In terms of what I have seen at the meetings I have gone to, and then what is reported back, it has not been great. We need a master plan, but I have heard that people didn’t love Jim’s [Sharpe] approach when he did it 20 years ago as well.
Marston: I’m on the Master Plan committee, and at all the meetings. I’ve said this more than once to Jim Sharpe that we’re sitting here in this back room doing all this stuff, then when we put it out in the light everyone is going to blow it up because they won’t know what we’ve been talking about. We need to be out there more. They email meeting minutes to me, but I don’t know what the Town Board sees. I also find the new town web site horrible. I’ve had to go to the old town web site a couple times to find things. I like to do my homework.
Town farmers market
GIFT: In 2016, the Town tried to launch a farmers market next to Town Hall. The plan never got off the ground for two reasons. One, they never consulted with the Grand Island farm owners they hoped would vend at the market. They never even cared to ask what day and time would work best for the farms. They instead just imposed a date and time. Second, and the main reason a town-sponsored farmers market never took off, was vendor insurance cost. The town required a farm to buy a $5 million insurance liability policy naming the town as insured. To put that in perspective, the town only requires a $1 million policy when Cory McGowan serves beer at one of his fine summer venues next to Town Hall.
There is a big benefit in having the Town of Grand Island sponsor a farmers market. The NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets offers up to $25,000 in grants per year per town for farmers market infrastructure, plus about another $7,000 for advertising. The grants pay for everything from building costs to refrigerators to cash registers.
Because of the availability of state grant money, should the Town try again to organize a farmers market? If yes, should the effort come from the ground-up with farms asking the town to support a town-sanctioned market that is funded through state grants, or should the effort come again from the top-down with the administration controlling the entire process?
Baney: It’s what the farmers want to do. I don’t want a town market where suddenly there’s more government, more legislation on it. I don’t think that’s how it should go. If it were at a point where the farming community in unity really wanted to do something like this, and government could be of an asset in accessing funds, that desire would have to come from the farming community and not be put on them by government. That desire should come from Ag, not the government saying you do this and you’ll get all this money for it. It’s going to have to be pushed, and then we as people serving will have to help you. It has to be in that direction.
Marston: I don’t think the town should be involved as much as they are in people’s business. The town shouldn’t control more than area zoning and things like that. That being said, since there is state grant money available, it’s something we have to look at. We definitely need to see if we can make it work for all at public versus private spaces.
GIFT: If the Town wanted to make available the Town Commons or Veteran’s Park, where you have existing parking and infrastructure, and if there was no cost to the Town and $30,000 a year in grant money to cover costs, should the Town have interest in getting involved or should the Town just stay away and let the farmers control their own market?
Marston: That right there explains it. If there’s no cost and it’s a driver, it’s great. I’ll go one further. They are working on this pavilion at Veteran’s Park, and struggling with the funding. But if it could be used for Ag purposes, that would certainly help it out. There’s parking and infrastructure, all we would have to do is scheduling with the sports, but there’s a way. I just don’t want the Town to have too much control over what Ag is doing.
GIFT: Do you think the $5 million insurance requirement was fair or disproportionate to the risk?
Marston: We race 70 mph lawnmowers on Whitehaven with a $1 million policy, and they are asking you for $5 million! There’s a point where common sense seems to fall out of the equation. I understand your frustration here.
Water metering & sewer fee
GIFT: Water is essential to farming. It is used for growing crops and raising or maintaining livestock. In 2016 we had a state-wide drought, and this year we are slightly above average for rainfall. The Town of Grand Island has its own water treatment facility, and also buys water from Niagara County. The Town’s sewer districts are located east of the I-190, while septic systems are used west of the highway. If your farm is located in a sewer district, you pay the standard Island-wide water rate of about $3 per 1000 gallons, but you must also pay an extra $5.25 per 1000 gallons in “sewer rent” even when the water is used outdoors and is not discharged into a sanitary sewer.
If your farm is located off Grand Island where the Erie County Water Authority supplies your water, there is a simple process to get a separate water meter for outdoor water usage so you do not have to pay a sewer tax for water that never goes down the drain. We tried to get the Town to adopt a similar policy. Instead, the current administration came up with Local Law #6 that imposes an arbitrary 25% total water use threshold that must be met before a taxpayer will have the “sewer rent” deducted from their bill.
Would you support a separate Ag water meter policy like the one used by the Erie County Water Authority, or do you think the current policy is fair?
Baney: Where did that law come from? What determined the 25% figure?
GIFT: The town attorney wrote the law, and the 25% minimum use figure is arbitrary considering that a separate water meter will measure exactly how much water is used that is not discharged into the sewer system. When the supervisor was asked why a threshold percentage was adopted instead of the policy used by the Erie County Water Authority, he said the Town had to adopt something first so it could amend it later. They made a conscious decision to write a bad law first and maybe fix it later, rather than write a good law first that mirrors what the rest of the county is doing.
Baney; I’d be open to looking at what the County is doing. I think it’s an issue that will be coming up in the next year. There’s a failing infrastructure issue, and how money can’t be taken from the general fund to pay for sewer upgrades. When we have all these infrastructure needs, the answer of, “oh just take it out of the general fund,” does not work. People are going to be talking about water. Water is going to be a big deal next year, and who pays for it, and why did those people on septic not have to. So it would be a really good time, since we are going to be talking about water, to examine it again.
Marston: Is our town code more aggressive than the County Water Authority policy?
GIFT: Yes, it is unreasonably restrictive as compared to the County. Erie County Water Authority lets you get a separate meter for outdoor water that is used and not returned to a sanitary sewer. You install a separate meter for outdoor Ag use, and that separate meter measures actual water used. You pay for actual water used, but you do not pay a local municipal charge for sanitary sewer disposal of that water. Here on Grand Island, local Law #6 of 2017 requires the farm to buy a meter, and pay to install the meter. The town would know exactly how much water is being used that is not put into the sewer system. But they add on an extra flaming hoop to jump through, in that if your farm usage is not 25% or more of your combined farm and home use, you still have to pay sewer rent on water you never put down the drain.
Marston: The 25% thing doesn’t make sense because what goes through the Ag water meter only goes through that meter, and what goes through the house meter is separate. That’s pretty cut and dry. The 25% is almost like an impact fee for having two meters.