Facing Challenges Effectively in Danby

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Tompkins Weekly 5-12-21

By Cathleen and Eric Banford

It’s hard to remember the feeling of meeting in person. It can be a sure sign of sustainability to find ourselves venturing into new experiences, with others or alone, and ways of thinking as our community takes on so many challenges that it can also feel overwhelming.

One way to counter the immenseness of all that we are facing is to begin with where we are, with the people that are around us.

The town of Danby is currently beginning a new chapter, taking a deeper look at our community with the hope of designing a more sustainable way forward. Zoning has not kept pace with the changes happening around us, and realizing this has brought the community together to envision what they want their town to look like, both now and into the future.

The Sczepanskis’ farm in Danby. Photo provided.

How do policies make it hard for us to solve our problems? How can we create policies that serve us in a better way? Policies need flexibility so they can deal with the issues that come up, yet they need to be definitive in order to guide our vision. Finding balance is not easy and calls each of us to lean into difficult conversations in which everyone might not agree.

As with all of the towns surrounding Ithaca, Danby has seen rapid growth in the past decade. Danby is blessed with a lot of rural character and open countryside, which of course attracts people who want to find peace and quiet “in the country.”

As more and more people build homes, the country quickly becomes more populated, which brings increased traffic, noise and light pollution, a decrease in open land, and very soon, the initial appeal of living farther from the general business of town can diminish. How does a town use zoning to guide this process so longtime and new residents alike can enjoy the lives they envision?

Danby has found itself needing to pause and reconsider what its vision of the future will look like. Efforts have been made to create zoning that protects Danby’s rural character, but it has not kept pace with the reality of change. So, residents have formed numerous working groups to focus on different topics: the Planning Group, the Danby Hamlet Group and the Agriculture Working Group.

Worried that their concerns could get lost in the broader zoning process, the AG Working Group formed to specifically focus on the needs of farmers.

The group gathers to consider questions like: Are there things in the current town’s zoning that affect you as a farmer either positively or negatively? Do we want to preserve existing AG lands for the future? What small businesses would be useful to encourage and support farmers?

A big concern is the cost of land for beginning farmers. Many farmers are aging out and see that selling their land to a developer could set them up for a comfortable retirement. How do we keep the best farming land in farming? How do we connect new farmers with existing farmland? How do we make land available to marginalized populations? How do we accommodate seasonal labor to harvest crops? Can we make provisions for short-term housing?

Towns can’t offer tax breaks as those are set at the state level. So, what incentives can be put into place? Danby is looking at short-term conservation easements that offer tax breaks. What else can we do?

Well-intended zoning can also have negative impacts. Setting a minimum lot size at 5 acres means some can’t afford to build, and some who do build only use a small portion of their land for their home, lawn and gardens. Often, the rest is left to grow to succession, removing it as potential farmland. How can zoning encourage dense housing that preserves open space for farming and for rural character?

How do we support desired, positive-impact industries, like hemp or solar farms, that could also have negative impacts? Solar panels aren’t attractive to everyone, and siting is important. Any processing facility can be loud and bring increased traffic. So, where would it be appropriate to host these businesses?

An encouraging thread in our conversation was that of cooperating with our neighbors. The realization that making a living selling produce in bulk is nearly impossible on a small scale has led many to consider ways to diversify, to share costs and to focus on value-added products.

Could a commercial kitchen be built where community members could rent space at all hours and process bread, cheese, grains, fruit and vegetables into products for sale?

A positive example of a local cooperative venture is the New York Nut Growers Association. Initial members bought a nut press for processing nuts into oil and flour, with the hope of eventually being able to offer a line of products for sale.

One Danby resident has planted thousands of hazelnut trees with a vision for participating in this venture. What other cooperative ventures can we envision that could support our families and our community?

The face of agriculture is drastically changing, with a shift to organic and regenerative practices leading the way. We now understand that we can practice regenerative agriculture on small plots of land that produce larger quantities of high-quality food.

This requires that we adapt our vision of agriculture and understand what is needed to support that. For example, many regenerative farming practices need processors to produce value-added goods. This can expand the impact of who can make a living, widening the circle of prosperity.

One important thing we need to learn is how to listen and grow together. We have to get better at listening to and understanding one another, to be less confrontational and more collaborative so we can work through issues to find solutions that serve us all. This is one reason working in small groups is really helpful.

Despite the town having limited power to effect change via zoning, the group decided to dream big and put forth a vision for what they hoped the town would look like into the future. A shared vision can attract like-minded people to collaborate, and working together, anything can be possible.

Eric is on the Board of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, and Cathleen is on the Board of Sustainable Tompkins. Together, they are designing an edible food forest on their farm in Danby and participating with the Danby AG Working Group.

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