Land Going, Going Gone

By Jamie Saine
With the current housing market Thor Oechsner expected development around Newfield to slow down, but he’s still losing his farmland to new projects.

This year Oechsner, an organic farmer in Newfield, anticipates losing more than 50 acres. Oechsner, who is a full-time farmer and leases his land, said he needs at least 400 acres of farmable land to survivor.

“I would love to buy farmland here,” Oechsner said. “But I also can’t pay the same per acre as someone who’s going to put a house on it. And I have no way to compete with them, because the land for me has to generate enough income to pay its own way.”

Newfield is one of three towns in Tompkins County without zoning laws, said Scott Doyle, a senior planner for Tompkins County. No zoning laws mean there is no municipal regulation as to how land is used. Newfield does, however, have a planning board.

Land leased by farmers in the area is increasingly being sold at higher prices for development projects. While development in areas surrounding the city of Ithaca often means housing, it can includes many things other than agricultural use. Oechsner recently lost a parcel of land to the Town of Newfield, but says the property is going to be used for a community park.

“They outbid me on that one by quite a bit,” he said. “It didn’t feel great, but if they make a park and everyone uses it, how am I going to argue with that one.”

The county planning department rarely looks at development in individual towns accept for large projects and to assess potential health issues, Doyle said.

Oechsner said the important thing is for the Town of Newfield to decide whether it wants to keep with its historical farming history or became a “bedroom” community to Ithaca.

“I think [farms] give the place character,” Oechsner said. “I get compliments on the way the fields look and I think people like to see agriculture going on around them.”

Oechsner, who rents property from 14 different landlords, is losing so much land that he is thinking about applying to a conservation easement program. Conservation easements secure agricultural land and create contracts that would protect the land from development in perpetuity.

“I have more [land] on the chopping block that I know is going to be sold unless I can somehow figure out a way to buy it,” he said.

Occasionally, the selling of land doesn’t work out too poorly for leasing farmers. A piece of Oechsner ’s land was sold to Randy Brown, who built a house on the corner of the field and let Oechsner continue to farm the rest.

“I think that Randy Brown is an excellent model of where some housing development and agriculture can co-exist,” Oechsner said.

But more often than not, the land Oechsner leases is sold to developers for houses or other non-agricultural work. He plans on building a flourmill to make his remaining acres more profitable, but may have to leave Newfield if he loses too much more land.

“There’s nothing more crushing to me than to put all this time, all this heart and soul into a piece of land and then have it get sold,” Oechsner said. “It’s completely demoralizing.”

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