Sullivan County lawmakers voted on July 21 to extend Agricultural District Four to include a 4.5-acre parcel owned by philanthropist and orchid maven Stuart Salenger. The acceptance into the district makes it more difficult for local officials to adopt zoning changes that would prevent Salenger from using the property for agricultural uses.
This is the third time that land owned by Salenger has been added to the district, and the third time during the process that neighbors have turned out to assert that Salenger doesn’t have the right to use his property for a commercial enterprise. In this case, Salenger may use the acreage to raise goats.
In the past, only legislator Kathy LaBuda, who represents
Forestburgh, opposed Salanger. This time around, she was joined by lawmaker Ron Hiatt. In an email, Hiatt said that he has always voted in favor of expanding the agricultural districts because he believes that farming has the most potential for economic development in Sullivan County.
But, noting that this may be connected to a neighborhood dispute, Hiatt wrote, “It was clear to me that this is and always has been a residential neighborhood. And putting an unknown number of goats directly adjacent to the neighbor’s property would affect the character of the neighborhood. The goats could just as easily be raised on the other 60 acres already approved for farming and well away from the residence.”
The argument from some lawmakers was that the members of the Sullivan County Farm Board, who are experts in the area, made the recommendation that the parcel should be accepted and the legislators should follow their advice. Officials connected to agriculture in the county have generally been very supportive of Salenger’s efforts.
The vote was five to two in favor, with two abstentions from legislators Leni Binder and Jodi Goodman. Salenger’s neighbor, Kathryn Barnhardt, at a public hearing in June said Binder and Goodman should recuse themselves from a vote on the matter because they have sat in Salenger’s box at concerts at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. County lawmakers are not supposed to accept gifts worth more than $75 if “it could be reasonably inferred that the gift was intended to influence him or her.”
Binder said had she not abstained she would have voted “yes” based on state law, and the fact that the parcel is contiguous to an existing farm.
Because of current ethics rules, abstention votes now count as yes votes unless there is a real conflict of interest as opposed to an appearance of impropriety. Binder and Goodman have sought to change that rule so that an abstention in the future would not count either way.
At an earlier meeting at the government center, lawmakers discussed changing the rule but no one had any suggestions about how language in the proposed measure should be changed, and a couple of lawmakers said the rule did not need to be changed.
Lawmaker Alan Sorensen said that it could allow legislators to avoid difficult votes by pleading some potential perception of a conflict of interest.
Goodman asked that the vote be tabled to give lawmakers more time to consider the matter and perhaps come up with new language, and the other lawmakers agreed.