By Lauren Zaepfel
The Wheatfield Town Board approved a plan Tuesday to protect and maintain the town's agricultural farmland and assist local farmers who want to continue their practice.
"We've been reviewing it over and over and over again for the last couple of years and it's to the point where we feel it's ready to be presented to the town," said Karen Frieder, chair of the agriculture preservation focus group. "The primary purpose of it is to give us some guidelines on where we can go to help the farmers stay in farming in the Town of Wheatfield and to preserve the farmlands that we have."
The plan was developed by the town's agriculture focus group and planner Wendy W. Salvati of WWS Planning.
It suggests research into tax relief programs, changes in zoning ordinances and purchasing development rights with the purpose of benefiting farmers.
Before the meeting, Frieder said, the plan is "giving us guidelines for development programs for possibly opening up the zoning to allow more types of farm-related business on the farms. We're going to be working on a bit of the zoning to try and give them a little more flexibility with that sort of thing."
Town of Wheatfield Supervisor Robert Cliffe said the lands that are currently considered within rural residential zones take up approximately one third of the town. These areas prohibit farming.
However, some farmland still exists within them because it has been grandfathered down through generations before the zoning regulations were adopted. If the farmers of this land did not farm for a year, their land would no longer be protected as farmland according to the town code.
"Basically, that's a simple matter of approving a change in our law that would say we accept farming in an RR (rural residential) zone," Cliffe said.
The agriculture preservation focus group is also currently researching purchase of development rights (PDR) programs, which are geared toward retaining agricultural businesses and farmland.
"For a lot of these farmers, their retirement is their land, and they want to be able to sell it to the highest bidder," Frieder said prior to the meeting. "And usually that's going to be the developers, not the farmers. So we're trying to find ways to work around that. There are a couple of programs out there, one of them is called purchase of development rights, where you find funding to offer them the difference between their farmland rate, and the developer rate and you buy that right and then that restricts the land from then forward - which permanently (rules) that it can only be used for farmland. ... It makes it easier for a new farmer to come and buy the land, because (they) can't compete with the developers."
The town would not buy the land, but the rights to it. These rights could allow the town to set forth guidelines on how the land is used.
Farmers would still maintain ownership of their property, however they would agree to retain the land for farming purposes.
In order to pay the landowners, the agriculture group would research funding options for the town, which could be obtained through grants or bonds.
The Town of Clarence already has a PDR program in place. Wheatfield Councilman Randy Retzlaff said Clarence has a small tax to help the farmers financially continue to farm.
During the meeting, Frieder said farmers the group has spoken with and who have attended the meetings are "quite enthusiastic. ... They are very interested in the purchase of development rights and whatever we can do to help them."
However, Cindy Engleka, a farmland owner on Lockport Road, said, "The land I have, that's my inheritance, that's also my retirement. And if you're telling me it's going only to be zoned for agricultural and we can't sell it, we can't develop on it - to me that's hurting my retirement and my livelihood."
In response, Frieder said, "That is absolutely not our intention - to restrict any farmer from ever being limited in what they can do with their land. What we are trying to do is find ways to make it financially viable for them to continue with farming and not have to sell it to a developer for their retirement. We know this is their retirement plan, we do not want to restrict them in any way - we can't legally - and we have no intention in doing that. We're trying to help them continue to farm and continue to make money."
"We cannot stop anybody from selling anything," Retzlaff said. "Our goal is to help the farmers do what they're doing and if we can assist them in any way - and with the development grants, we're looking at the possibility ... of obtaining some money and maybe asking these farmers to keep from developing and helping them financially."
Whether Wheatfield will peruse any type of PDR program has not been determined.
Reilly said, "We're not saying PDRs are going to happen in the Town of Wheatfield, "That would be researched."
Frieder said it would take a couple of years to develop a potential program.
She added, "For now, the big thing is to adopt this plan and then the next step will be to go through all these recommendations and start working on them going forward."
Wheatfield resident Debbie DiBartolomeo, a member of the town's Agriculture Focus Group, said, "I just want to see the rural character of Wheatfield maintained and the farms that are here be able to pass them down to their family members that are interested or being able to sell them to other people rather than to see the farms that have been here all this time bulldozed, because, once that farmland's gone, it's gone forever."
Reilly said, "It's a great plan. It will help the farmers. If it doesn't help the farmers, it's not worth doing it."
In conjunction with the plan, the Town of Wheatfield Agriculture Focus Group will host a family farm succession planning seminar from 7-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, at the Wheatfield Community Center, 2790 Church Road.
Certified financial planner Diann Andrews of NextStage Legacy Advisors, who specializes in agribusiness succession and estate planning, will present the seminar.
For more information, contact Carl Walck at 716-308-1116 or Diann Andrews at 716-580-1123.
In other news
The board tabled two agenda items, both requesting approval of payment in lieu of taxes for proposed housing apartments in the town.
The Aero Apartments project was tabled at the request of the developer. Aero Apartments L.P. has planned to construct a 60-unit residential building for low-income individuals and families on Williams Road.
The not-for-profit and tax exempt charitable corporation Vincent Properties Inc. offered to enter into a 30-year PILOT agreement with the town for its proposed Wheatfield Commons housing apartments. The company has proposed 60 senior housing units on Forest Parkway for people with memory care issues. The corporation, in good faith, would pay $12,000 to the town in its first year.
Due to the likelihood of increased calls coming from this type of facility, Town of Wheatfield Councilman Gilbert Doucet requested the corporation provide an additional $2,000 for each of the town's five fire companies annually.
Doucet said the town's firemen already are experiencing pressure and "this is going to really put a strain on them."
Councilman Arthur Gerbec supported Doucet's suggestion.
Attorney Michael Piette, who provides legal representation for Vincent Properties, said he will present the request to his client and will provide an answer at the town's next board meeting to be held at 7:30 p.m., April 18, in Town Hall.