RAY BROOK -- The Lewis Family Farm in Essex is facing $1.14 million in penalties for allegedly violating Adirondack Park Agency Act land-use laws.

A dispute over jurisdiction, snagged in the definition of "agricultural use," stems from three farm-worker houses built on the 1,111-acre grain and cattle farm owned by Salim B. "Sandy" and Barbara Lewis.

Mr. Lewis bought the farm in 1978, then a dilapidated collection of houses, sheds and barns.

Mr. Lewis estimates they have invested close to $20 million on building a state-of-the-art organic farm, replete with elaborate drainage systems installed deep under rolling fields and a registered breeding program for organic cattle.

GROWING CONFLICT

Conflict with the APA erupted after the Lewises put in foundations for three farm-worker houses in late 2006, with town building permits in hand dated Nov. 14, 2006.

As hints of APA jurisdiction surfaced, Mrs. Lewis contacted the APA directly, according to the Lewis version of the dispute, presented in a spiral-bound memorandum titled "The Right to Farm in the Champlain Valley of New York."

In an affidavit filed in January 2008, Mrs. Lewis presented a sense of the state of confusion between local and state authorities.

"I was shocked and upset as representatives of the Town of Essex had informed us during the (town) building-permit application process that no APA permits, or additional permits of any kind, were required.

"In addition, I had never obtained any APA permits for any of the other farm buildings and structures that we have built over the years."

Essex Building Code Officer Dave Lansing said there was indeed confusion with the zoning process.

"That's true. But even though, they should always go to the APA. I think at one point in time, I did tell Mark McKenna (hired initially to build the housing) they could file an inquiry with the Park.

"As far as the town codes are concerned, they're fine. The buildings that they bought were approved in Albany."

Mrs. Lewis said they had previously demolished at least 15 houses that were "broken and beyond repair" and erected 15 farm buildings -- all without APA permits.

"The Lewis Family Farm did not obtain permits from the (APA) for any (sic) these farm structures."

In fact, under Adirondack Park laws regulating agricultural Resource Management land, farm outbuildings -- barns, stalls, silos -- do not require permits.

But single-family dwellings do.

MORE TO THE STORY

APA documents claim the Lewises did file an application with the agency, which was deemed incomplete.

"On or about March 14, 2007, after being advised to do so by the Town of Essex, (Lewis Farm) submitted an application to the APA for a permit for the construction of three single-family dwellings," APA attorney Paul Van Cott wrote.

Mrs. Lewis continued to be up front with APA.

"On March 19, 2007, (Lewis Farm) notified the Agency that it had already constructed the foundations and septic systems for the dwellings. Upon further investigation, including visits to the site and discussions with (the Lewises), the Agency concluded that a violation had occurred and sought to resolve the matter through a proposed settlement agreement and penalty."

CONSTRUCTION STOPPED

The Lewises voluntarily stopped construction in mid-March 2007 to try to clear up the confusion.

But, in May, when APA staff proposed a $10,000 settlement agreement requiring, among other items, a waiver of the right to challenge jurisdiction, discussions failed.

On advice from their attorneys, the Lewises proceeded to build their farm-worker housing under the premise it was agriculturally exempt.

Modular homes were installed in June 2007, and APA promptly issued a cease-and-desist order, which the Lewises disregarded while fines accrued near $3,500 per day.

BATTLE LINES DRAWN

Suing to establish agricultural jurisdiction, the Lewises lost their challenge to the APA in Essex County Court last August.

They garnered support from large organic farms in the Finger Lakes region and the New York Farm Bureau.

Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Patrick Hooker wrote a letter to APA Chairman Curt Stiles arguing that farm-worker houses are "agricultural structures."

In a letter of support, John Lincoln, president of the Farm Bureau, called the APA enforcement case "draconian," claiming it "could have negative impacts on farms throughout the Adirondack Park."

APA staff lawyers say the Lewis case "has woven a web of non-material facts and misread or inapplicable (sic) law in a disingenuous effort to cast this simple case as an agency-orchestrated attack on Adirondack farmers."

APA reads farm-worker housing as "single-family dwellings," a carefully monitored use on Resource Management lands, with permits required should the land ever be sold out of agricultural use into development.

APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the two postures in the case are not mutually exclusive, both seeking to protect agricultural use of the land.

"The Lewis Farm single-family dwellings are permittable," he said.

When asked why he wouldn't simply apply for the permit, Mr. Lewis stood the matter on principle, one with a steep price.

"No jurisdiction, no fine. It's easy. These (buildings) are non-jurisdictional agricultural-use structures under the law. If APA continues to do this, the farm will close."

McKeever said the Enforcement Committee has sole discretion in the matter, with 15 days to render a decision.

kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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