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Wheatfield passes farmland protection plan

WHEATFIELD – The Wheatfield Town Board on Monday started a process of protecting the town’s agricultural heritage in the face of a quarter-century of residential growth. It passed a farmland protection plan that calls for future actions that could include zoning changes or even the purchase of development rights from farmers.

“We’ve been reviewing it over and over and over again for a couple of years,” said Karen Frieder, facilitator of the town’s Agricultural Preservation Focus Group, which worked on the 100-page plan with planner Wendy W. Salvati of WWS Planning.

Frieder said the goal was “to help the farmers stay in farming and preserve the farmland we have in the Town of Wheatfield.”

One of the ideas is to make farming a permitted use in an agricultural residential zone. Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said that zone covers about one-third of the town, but all the farms in it are there because they were grandfathered when the zoning ordinance was adopted.

“It would be a simple change in our law: ‘We accept farming in a rural residential zone,’” Cliffe said.

If land isn’t farmed for a year, the right to farm it lapses unless farming is a specifically permitted use, Frieder said.

She said farmers who attended the focus group meetings “were very interested in the purchase of development rights.”

The town wouldn’t be buying the lands, just the rights. But the town has no money at the moment to do that, although Frieder said state funding could be available. Cliffe said the Town of Clarence borrowed money to buy development rights and imposed a special tax to pay off the bonds.

Whether Wheatfield does anything like that has yet to be decided. “This is going to take a couple of years,” Frieder said.

Cindy Engleka, a farmer in town, said it would be a hardship if the town attempted to prohibit farmers from selling land. “The land I have is my inheritance, my retirement,” she said.

Frieder said that would be illegal. “That is absolutely not our intention,” she said. “There’s nothing in this program that will restrict farmers any more than they already are.”

“This is to help the farmers,” Councilman Randy Retzlaff said. “It’s not to prohibit them from selling anything.”

“I think it’s a great plan,” said Andrew C. Reilly of the Wendel engineering firm, which works for the town. “It’ll help the farmers. If it doesn’t help the farmers, it’s not worth doing.”

“I just want to see the rural character of Wheatfield maintained,” said Debbie DiBartolomeo of the town’s Agricultural Task Force. “Once that farmland is gone, it’s gone forever.”