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Chili ponders farming's future


Just under a quarter of Chili's land is active farmland or undeveloped land that could be farmed. The number of agricultural operations has grown in recent years, too, but so has the amount of land taken up by housing and commercial development.

As a whole, the approximately 6,000 acres of agricultural land in Chili aren't under immediate threat, says Supervisor David Dunning. Much of the area south of Black Creek, where most of Chili's farms are located, lacks sewers and is not likely to get them any time soon — putting a serious damper on development prospects.

But Chili officials say that they want to protect and preserve the town's farmland before they're forced to scramble. And they now have a final draft of a townwide Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan, which recommends several actions. The goal is to encourage farming as much as it is to preserve undeveloped land, Dunning says.

"You cannot let this industry die," he says. "And it will if you let it."

The Town Board will hold a public hearing on the plan at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 10, at Chili Town Hall, 3333 Chili Avenue.

Chili already has an Agricultural Conservation District in its zoning code. The district covers much of the town's southern half. The plan says that officials should prioritize the preservation and protection of farmland in that area, and recommends rezoning a chunk of land south of Bowen Road and east of Stottle Road to make it part of the district.

It also recommends changing zoning laws to relax certain minimum lot-size requirements, which would prevent new houses from eating up land. It would also allow for smaller agricultural businesses.

The plan says that the town should consider zoning changes that would allow farms to run other businesses from their properties for part of the year. The idea is to make farms more viable by providing opportunities for year-round income.

Other Monroe County towns have used conservation easements — a legal restriction on a land's current and future use — and the purchase of development rights to ensure that farmland remains, at minimum, as open space. Chili's plan recommends these approaches, as well.

But buying development rights can be costly. Webster and Pittsford, which went through periods of rapid development, spent millions of dollars each protecting farmland and open space. Voters gave officials in both towns permission to borrow money for those efforts. Pittsford's total was $7.2 million, while Webster's was $5.9 million.

Chili's plan recommends establishing a fund to pay for farmland preservation, but Dunning says that he doesn't "know where that's going to go yet."

An idea for generating farmland protection funding came up while the plan was in development. The town could charge a fee on sales of farmland within the conservation district, if the land is being sold for a non-farm use. The proceeds would be dedicated for purchasing farmland development rights or conservation easements.