Dan Hust | Democrat
AGING ARTWORK STILL dots the landscape of an old farm near Kenoza Lake, proposed to become a model organic farming operation.
From sculpture field to organic farm
By Dan Hust
KENOZA LAKE For years, fields and forests along Fulton Hill Road in Kenoza Lake featured lawn ornaments like no other: sculptures, buildings, statues.
But time has not been kind to these 84 acres, and what little is left of the former occupant’s artwork sits deteriorating behind weeds.
The property also fell into tax delinquency, and the county recently foreclosed and took title.
That set County Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer thinking: with agriculture the county’s #1 economic driver facing deepening challenges, could this acreage be the spot for an incubator farm?
“It has numerous farmhouses,” he said, “and the fencing is in great shape.”
He pitched the idea to legislators recently, telling them that a farm is less demanding on municipal services and can help offset sprawl. This month, legislators agreed to not sell the property and gave him permission to develop the idea further.
So Pammer is now in talks with the Open Space Institute (OSI), the Delaware Highlands Conservancy (DHC) and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) to start up a farming operation on fields that long ago served just such a purpose.
Its working name currently is the Delaware Agribusiness Incubator, named after the township in which the property sits.
OSI and DHC are assisting in setting up an agricultural easement, while NOFA may lease and oversee the farm.
Forested acres would likely be preserved (though sustainably logged), while the open acres would be dedicated to crops and livestock in an experimental organic demonstration farm open to veteran but geared toward startup farmers.
Calling the land “agriculturally significant,” NOFA Director Greg Swartz actually liked the site’s “fairly marginal” soil, seeing opportunities to train farmers in how to maximize yields in the typically poor soils found in the area.
Swartz used to farm in Cochecton Center and Callicoon Center and now runs an organic fruit and vegetable farm just across the Delaware River in Abrahamsville, Pa.
He said NOFA’s board is just now beginning to discuss its role, however.
“It’s something we’ve talked about for many years,” he said of the demonstration farm concept. “... [But] we’re nowhere near any type of commitments.”
The operation would be non-profit but might remain on the tax rolls in some fashion.
Then again, it might not.
“The future taxability of the property has yet to be determined,” explained County Treasurer Ira Cohen, who said it could become fully taxable or fully tax-exempt.
He pointed out that the County Legislature has to make several decisions on how to proceed with the property, including any lease arrangement, and that will impact how the property is taxed.
Cohen added that Delaware has been made whole for 2009 taxes, since those were levied before the county took title to the property. However, if the county holds onto the land, a section of Real Property Tax Law requires the county only to pay school taxes, not town taxes.
Thus, Delaware could lose as much as $2,000 a year, estimated Pammer, while, as Cohen pointed out, county taxpayers would be making payments to the Sullivan West school district.
The county itself was owed about $12,000 in back taxes on the parcel, which is currently assessed for nearly $210,000, but Pammer is hoping a potential lease agreement with NOFA will help recoup the county’s costs.
As for Delaware, he is optimistic that the farm’s assistance to new and existing farmers in purchasing property in the area and increasing their productivity could help offset any tax loss.
However, Delaware’s town board, which only heard about the details of the proposal after the Democrat contacted Supervisor Jim Scheutzow for comment, was upset about the lack of info and potential lack of taxes. They discussed the matter at their Wednesday board meeting, not denouncing the project but criticizing the poor communication by the county on an issue with potentially large impacts.
“It is huge when you think about not getting the tax dollars,” Delaware Assessor Linda Schwartz said to the town board.
Most upset was Legislator Dave Sager, who represents the district in which the property sits.
He told the board that he had not been made aware of the farm being in his district until that day.
The next day, he told his county colleagues that the town and he should have been informed about these plans far earlier.
“We need to work very hard on the lines of communication,” he stated.
Fellow legislators agreed, saying all of them should have been told the details as soon as practicable.
“We certainly can make a better effort, I’m sure,” promised Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis.
Nevertheless, legislators on Thursday unanimously approved keeping the property off the tax auction, and the county is seeking to make the township a partner in this effort. Other partners include Catskill Mountainkeeper, the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Watershed Agricultural Council.
“We’ll start putting together the specs,” Pammer remarked. “... We would like to see something happen before the end of this year.”