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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, August 28, 2008

Sarah Gordon pitches farmland protection

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — Sarah Gordon, a farmer’s daughter trained now as a planner, says the town’s outdated comprehensive plan threatens agriculture.

Gordon, a Knox resident, made a pitch to the town board last Tuesday for a farmland protection plan. New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets offers grants of up to $25,000, or 75 percent of the cost of developing such a plan, whichever is less.

Patrick Hooker, agriculture commissioner for New York State, has said that one of the most important roles of a municipality is the regulation of land use. With this in mind, the Department of Agriculture and Markets created its Farmland Protection Program, which offers the non-competitive grants.

The program aims to provide the means and incentive for maintaining New York’s agricultural industry and protecting the environment.

Sarah Gordon grew up on a farm herself, run by her mother, the late Mary Ellen Gordon, and her father, Alexander Gordon, the Albany County legislator representing the Hilltowns. She learned of the grant opportunity while consulting with the Department of Agriculture and Market’s Soil and Water Conservation Committee.

The neighboring town of Berne recently received a $25,000 grant to be used for developing a farmland protection plan. The department said that 51 counties now have farmland protection plans in place.

Gordon has suggested that a farmland protection plan be added as an appendix to the town’s comprehensive plan, which has been unchanged since 1994, and does not accommodate for the town’s growing agricultural district, she said.

In her presentation to the board, Gordon said that the town should be “exploring opportunities for farmers, community members, local business owners, and municipal officials to collaborate to expand local market and employment opportunities for agriculture.”

She also listed some of the benefits of farmland preservation, including the generation of local revenue, creation of local jobs, and lower demand of public services. Agriculture also contributes water quality protection, open space, connections within the community, and a fresh, local and healthy food supply, she said.

Gordon gathered statistics from reports from several organizations, some from the Albany County Department of Economic Development, Conservation and Planning, and some from the Department of Agriculture and Markets, she said.

One such statistic from 1990 said that 94.7 percent of Knox residents work outside of the town, she said.

A series of charts in her presentation showed a relatively steady increase in population over the past few decades, while showing a decline in the number of total farms and total harvests in Albany County.

“What I think we should do is set up a meeting with all the boards and come up with a mutual conclusion as to what to do about it,” said Robert Price, chairman of the town’s planning board. “The planning board isn’t going to act independently until a decision is made.”

The decision, he said, has to be made by the town board since it must apply for the grant. “If we get the grant, then it’s the town that’s going to have to spend taxpayer money,” Price said. “Let’s say we get a grant for $20,000. The town might still have to pay an out-of-pocket $1,500.”

Price thinks Sarah Gordon should spearhead the project for the town.

“I was born and raised in Knox,” Gordon said. “I grew up on a grass-fed beef farm. My dad still owns the farm,” she said.

After graduating from Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School and Marist College, with a double major in political science and environmental science, Gordon went on to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Vermont in natural resource management.

“So far, I’m just kind of starting out as a consultant,” said Gordon. She’s currently heading up a new state initiative for a community conservation assistance toolkit, which she is working on for her master’s degree, she said. “We’re trying to organize different programs and technical financial assistance resources into a toolkit for municipalities,” she said.

“The reason I want to do this,” Gordon said of the farmland protection plan, “is I realize that there are development pressures threatening farmers. It would be best for Knox to be proactive on the farmland preservation issue.”

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