- By Dan Veaner
"It's always been the intent that we keep the northern part of this town a rural agricultural area," Ag Plan Committee member and former Councilwoman Connie Wilcox said. "I think it's a real shame that kingdom Farm is asking as much as they are. I know a couple of farmers that would have bought it if it wasn't $6,000 per acre. A farm I know of looked at it, and another consortium as well. But the soil is not that good. I hate to see it turn into a big development. Just look at Buck Road. That used to be farms and now it's just houses."
The 500 acre farm is located on Auburn Road, just north of Route 34B (Peruville Road/Auburn Road). While local farmers are interested in obtaining the property, they say the asking price of $6,000 per acre is too high. Some said the price might be accessible for larger area farms in Cayuga County. Lansing Councilman Ed LaVigne questioned the premise of maintaining the property as farm land, saying that other uses might sprout up that could potentially be beneficial to the Town.
"What's your greatest fear about what's going to happen to this land?" asked LaVigne. "The Butlers owned the land where the Pyramid Mall is now. That didn't turn out so bad. I'm not advocating that, but I am saying we should keep our eyes open."
Most people in the room said they wanted to preserve the land as a farm.
"I think that is one of the nicest pieces of farmland in Central New York," said Planning Board Member Al Fiorille. "It's got good soil, very few hedgerows, and gentle slopes. That piece along with other agricultural land in the neighborhood is feeling development pressure. I want to know if there is a consensus among the Town Board, the Planning Board, or the Community about protection of desirable properties."
Local farmers questioned the quality of the soil, saying that soil in Cayuga County is of generally better quality. Lansing Agriculture Plan Committee Facilitator Monika Roth said about half the Kingdom Farm acreage has very good quality soil. Wilcox said that one farmer in Locke had tendered a purchase offer that fell through when he discovered the soil is not as good as on more northern farms. Farmer and Planning Board member Lin Davidson said the high price per acre would be expected in Cayuga County, but not in Lansing.
"That's not unusual for land in Cayuga County, but it's better land up there," Planning Board member and farmer Lin Davidson said. "There's a lot of dreaming about how great the soil is on that farm. There's a fair amount of good soil, but a lot of it is not."
Wilcox noted that the Watchtower Society can afford to bide its time because it is in no hurry to sell. She noted that as a religious not-for-profit organization they do not pay taxes on the land. A local farmer said he had considered the property, but decided that it was not worth the asking price. But he said the realtor told him that a number of parties are actively interested, both farmers and developers.
"It is a better deal for the Town if it is kept agricultural rather than being converted to residential, because residential property costs the Town more money," Long time Planning Board member Larry Sharpsteen noted. But he added, "My personal opinion is that if you own property you have a right to develop, improve, or dispose of that property any way that you want to. If somebody doesn't want what you want it's their option to buy the property."
Cornell Cooperative Extension Agriculture Issue Leader and Roth said New York State has funding for farmland protection. She said she had approached the County Planning Department and the Finger Lakes Land Trust to see if she could obtain their help in preserving the land for farming. She said the best scenario would be for a local farmer, presumably with adjoining or nearby property, to purchase toe 500 acre parcel. But she added that the $3 million price tag makes that scenario very unlikely.
"If the property were to be purchased, and then we could get an easement on it to continue it as agricultural land, that would be the next best thing," she said. There are some towns downstate that have been in the same situation, that have found a mechanism to temporarily buy the property, then get the easement, and then get a farmer who can afford that price. So the town, hopefully, gets its money back -- maybe not all of it."
"They can't compete with farms in Cayuga County. They have farms with land right next door, and it would make their farming much ore efficient, but they're getting outbid by the larger farms to the north of us. If you really want to support the farms that are in your community that have viable businesses it would be nice if we had a mechanism for helping them access the land to expand their businesses to remain viable."
In May of 2007 two representatives of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Nicholas Schwartz and Daniel Rice, showed town officials prospective plans that they said could bring more than 500 new residences, possibly including apartments and senior housing, plus retail and business properties ranging from high density development on the southern part of the farm to two to eight acre single-family parcels on the northern portion. Watchtower Society had also entered into an agreement with the Town to contribute $1.5 million to a sewer project in exchange for an agreed upon amount of sewer capacity to the property, when a sewer project came to pass. Last year the Town voided that agreement in the midst of a controversial sewer plan that failed to materialize.
Former Planning Board member Larry Zuidema said that Lansing has a history of only about 30 home building permits per year, and argued that agriculture is the best use for the 500 acre farm. He said that adding the 500 acres to a local farmer's existing property would create a sustainable farm, but that grand schemes like those presented by the Watchtower Society seven years ago are unlikely to materialize.
"It's not going to happen," he said. "It's not going to happen. What's gong to happen is somebody will put a road in there and they'll put a couple of houses there and it will sit and go up to weeds. That's the worst case scenario. You're not going to have any developer take on that much land and try to put houses, and even a store there. it's not a good use of that land."
Roth said Kingdom Farm is a priority property that should be considered for protection. She agreed when Fiorille said that the Town should be proactive in preserving the farmland.
"This town has the best soil of all the towns in the county," said Roth. "It has the most active agriculture of all the towns in the county. Out of $60 million worth of (Tompkins County) ag sales, $20 million is generated in the Town of Lansing. So you've got a viable ag industry. It seems to me that that is something you ought to look at. What other industries in your town generate $20 million? Yes, it's dispersed across the landscape, but it is significant. And it does create jobs."