Three Village couple seek farmland designation

Three Village couple seek farmland designation

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Ryan and Aneta McGann with their daughter Mia stand in front of one of the climate-controlled containers where they grow produce on their East Setauket property. Photo by Rita J. Egan

An East Setauket husband and wife are looking for a change that has caused a bit of controversy in their neighborhood.

Inside the containers are movable walls where produce grows. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Ryan and Aneta McGann will ask the Suffolk County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board to recommend their Main Street property to be part of a certified agricultural district during an April 22 Zoom meeting. Once the request is presented to this county board, the McGanns will then have to appear before the Suffolk County Legislature for a final decision.

The McGanns currently have three climate-controlled containers that they use to grow produce and herbs on their property. Their request for the designation has raised some concerns by neighbors who contacted the Three Village Civic Association and local elected officials. Many are worried that if the property is designated farmland that the number of climate-controlled containers will increase and become unsightly. They also wonder if there will be customers coming and going, and will there be a potential for the couple to grow cannabis and hemp in the containers.

George Hoffman, president of the Three Village Civic Association, said the attempt to be included in the county’s agriculture district program could be seen as getting around local zoning, and that even one container on the lot could interfere with neighbors enjoying their own property.

Hoffman said the civic association is concerned with a violation of town zoning as the property is in a residentially zoned neighborhood in the East Setauket Historic District.

“Many of Mr. McGann’s neighbors reached out to the civic association to complain about the commercial use of the property and how it is diminishing their enjoyment of their property in having to live next to an industrial use,” Hoffman said.

“Many of Mr. McGann’s neighbors reached out to the civic association to complain about the commercial use of the property and how it is diminishing their enjoyment of their property in having to live next to an industrial use.”

— George Hoffman

The McGanns recently began running a vertical farm on their slightly more-than-1-acre land called HydrOrganic Farms. Crops are grown along vertical walls set up in three 40-by-8-foot climate-controlled containers. Each container has its own environment, according to Ryan McGann, where one is used for growing produce such as lettuce, while another can be used for herbs such as basil, sage and even edible flowers.

Ryan McGann said growing crops in the containers has many benefits including produce and herbs not being subject to the elements and the elimination of the use of pesticides. He added selling fresh produce helps to build relationships with local business owners and chefs.

“I get good feedback on the produce, and it’s fun to see what they do with it because it’s a little bit different than standard field-growing produce,” he said.

HydrOrganic Farms is approved to produce cannabis and hemp through the New York State pilot program. However, Ryan McGann said the couple have no plans to grow the products except maybe for a small yield study, to see if it grows vertically in such containers at the East Setauket location.

“Any large-scale production projects will be at another expansion site specifically for hemp,” he said.

He added that they have such a high demand for their current produce that it wouldn’t make sense to grow hemp on a large scale on their East Setauket property.

Bill Zalakar, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said it can cost “millions” to grow cannabis and hemp due to licensing fees, operations and security measures. He added the hemp plant also grows too tall to be in a container.

Zalakar said he has seen the McGanns’ containers and has been helping them with the process, which also included going before the Brookhaven Town Board.

“Any large-scale production projects will be at another expansion site specifically for hemp.”

— Ryan McGann

The McGanns have “been trying to do it right,” he said. “It’s not like they are trying to hide anything.”

Regarding adding more containers to the property, the McGanns said they have no plans to, but they are in the process of building a barn on their land. They also deliver the produce to their customers, which includes local restaurants, so there aren’t people coming to their home. Ryan McGann said with the property being a flagship-shaped lot they feel that the containers are not visible from the street, and he has taken the time to explain the process to neighbors.

The husband said if they do expand, they will have containers in other locations. This is possible, he said, because the containers can be controlled through the internet, and he can change parameters remotely from his home. The hope is to place more farming containers in a Huntington location to be closer to some of the restaurants they do business with.

Town of Brookhaven Councilman Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) said while such pods are an excellent idea when it comes to growing produce, he said there need to be rules as to where the containers can be set up and they can’t be placed just anywhere.

“It can really change the look and feel of a neighborhood,” the councilman said. “That’s why we have zoning.”

He added it could set a dangerous precedent townwide if the McGanns were able to receive an agricultural district designation from
the county.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D) wrote a letter to the Suffolk County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board to object the possibility of the property being included in an agricultural district. Englebright echoed the civic association’s concerns that the McGanns live in a residential zone in a historic district. He added in the letter that in 1971, the New York State Legislature created Article 25-AA Agricultural and Farmland Protection Program as a part of the Agriculture & Markets Law. Englebright said it was clear that the intent of this law is to protect farm operations and the land base associated with it.

“Granting inclusion of the landowner’s 1.1-acre residential neighborhood parcel in an agricultural district is contrary to the legislative intent of the law as the landowner’s agricultural model does not involve soil, or land, or even sunlight,” Englebright wrote.

The McGanns said they are curious to find out the history of their property in the future to discover whether or not farming was ever done there in the past.

For now, the couple said they are hoping that the Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board will recommend their property for inclusion in an agricultural district so they can continue growing and delivering locally grown produce to nearby customers.