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Canton officials frown over ag district designation

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CANTON — Canton town officials are unhappy with a St. Lawrence County legislative committee decision to include land zoned residential in an agricultural district because of uncertainties how the designation might play out.

At a Monday meeting, legislators approved additions for Agricultural Districts 1 and 2 that included parcels in the town of Canton, some of which are in a residential zone that has prompted discussion on the role of backyard chickens and small-scale commercial gardening that caters to local markets.

Robert J. Washo and Maria P. “Flip” Filippi, along with other family members and supporters, applied for land they own on Miner Street Road to be included in an agricultural district.

The Ag and Farmland Protection Board reviewed the requests along with those of 17 other county property owners and unanimously recommended their inclusion.

Canton’s residential zones in the past have not allowed commercial agriculture or farm animals but cries for change recently prompted allowance of community supported agriculture operations under certain conditions. The town Planning Board is working on a law that could allow home-raised fowl.

Canton town officials wanted more time to explore their concerns that inclusion in an ag district could affect future decisions.

However, county planner Matilda M. Larson told legislators inclusion in an ag district does not force a community to allow farming but when it is allowed, Ag and Markets will weigh in on what constitutes reasonable agricultural practices.

“The ag district program is not zoning,” she said.

In a memo to legislators, Ms. Larsen wrote that ag districts protect farm operations from unreasonable land use regulations, but they do not pre-empt zoning. However, after speaking with state officials about case law and ambiguities, town leaders are not so sure.

“Those who picked up the phone and called Ag and Markets know the dilemma this puts Canton in,” Supervisor David T. Button said. “The only thing clear is that nothing is really clear. Those people who ought to have clear answers on this cannot provide them. This could be saying that agriculture that comes after zoning as residential gets to encroach on residential. The only ones that will have to pay to determine that are the taxpayers of Canton.”

In the case of the chicken law it is drafting, being in an ag district might determine that the town could not restrict the number of birds per acre, Mr. Button suggested.

Mr. Button said the town would be satisfied by an advisory opinion from county attorney Michael C. Crowe that ag districts do not trump local zoning.

Legislator Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, tried unsuccessfully in committee to have lawmakers remove a 2.8-acre parcel owned by Douglas and Jenelle Matthews from ag district inclusion as he said they are at odds with the town over the lack of a building permit and haven’t cooperated with the zoning.

Excluding a property from an ag district because it is not in good standing with a town would be a new standard, Ms. Larsen said.

The criterion is whether the land is being used for agriculture, county Planning Director Keith J. Zimmerman said. Part of the Matthews’s property is leased to Mr. Washo and Ms. Filippi.

Mr. Washo said the town told him that any satellite gardens would not have to apply under the CSA regulation.

“We’re following the letter of the law,” he said.

But Code Enforcement Officer Russell B. “Rusty” Lawrence IV said he would have to review the requirements.

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