Forts Ferry Farm owners say Colony is a barrier to small business


COLONY – Eight years after Forts Ferry Farm opened, its owners have removed their farm stand and halted all future development for the public of the multimillion-dollar property and business in Latham due to what they call municipal bureaucracy “archaic and dubious regulations”. values” which is “almost impossible to navigate”.

The farm, which last year harvested 25,000 pounds of produce across 300 varieties, will continue to sell its wares at the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market on Saturdays. But the property is largely closed to the public, ending programs including free public and school farm tours, wellness classes, live music, theme nights including pizza and movies, and events like Halloween parties and classic car cruises.

The owners said they are so frustrated with roadblocks from city officials that they will be moving their farm stand to Columbia County, with a planned opening in mid-summer. The farm will use its website to sell prepared foods, pantry items and farm-themed gifts, available for shipping or pick-up from the farm.

Complaints about bureaucracy at Forts Ferry Farm Colony were echoed in interviews with several small business owners who have had recent dealings with city regulators and inspectors. All owners said Colonie officials have created an atmosphere that seems to welcome deep-pocketed developers, big-box stores and other national chains, but regularly thwarts independent owners.

Veronika DeGiovine, senior associate attorney for the city of Colony, dismissed characterization of the city as hostile to small business.

“I think the city welcomes all business,” she said.

“I’ve seen apartment complexes go up faster than I could get a water pipe approved,” said Emma Hearst, who grew up locally, went to culinary school and moved back to the area in the capital to open Forts Ferry Farm with her husband, John Barker. , after a stint as chef and co-owner of a renowned restaurant in New York. Barker’s brother James joined the farm as a partner in 2018.

Hearst is the daughter of Times Union publisher George R. Hearst III, owner of the 30-acre field on Forts Ferry Road where the farm is located. The farm leases the property, 70 acres in total, to George Hearst. Times Union Vice President of Operations and Integrated Services Dan Couto struck an independent deal with the farm to be its primary liaison, a role in which he communicated with city officials about the plans. farms that are the subject of a dispute. (Neither he nor George Hearst was involved in this story.)

In addition to the water pipe, which has yet to be approved and is intended for crop irrigation and water supply for chickens and two rescue steers, Forts Ferry Farm has struggled with the town for its farm stand. Emma Hearst said city officials seemed to decide last year, after seven years of being open, that it didn’t meet the city’s definition of a farm stand. They also had legal wrangles with the city over a sign, tours and other events, lighting and more.

In an online explanation of the decision to scrap the farm stand, Hearst and the Barkers wrote that Forts Ferry Farm was “faced with red tape at every stage of our growth.” They said bureaucracy and regulatory enforcement were by turns inconsistent and overzealous, leading to “exorbitant costs in legal and professional services”.

Colony town code defines a farm stand as a seasonal business “with no permanent structure and offering outdoor shopping only.” In an interview, DeGiovine first said that Forts Ferry Farm met the definition when it opened because it sold its produce at “one table.” When told the farmhouse stand from the start was a shed with a porch, doors, windows and electricity, DeGiovine said that meant he broke the building codes of the farm. state and city for seven years.

“The city’s concerns are specifically safety issues,” DeGiovine said. She said it’s considered unsafe for the public and employees to be in a building that hasn’t been inspected by the city and hasn’t received a certificate of occupancy. “We’ve been asking them to comply with city and state building code for years,” DeGiovine said.

Hearst acknowledged that the farm stand had not been approved by the city and did not have a certificate of occupancy.

“We didn’t think we needed it,” she said. In a city where tax rolls show only 2% of the land is agricultural, “their agricultural code is archaic,” Hearst said. “We grow all year round and we need a place to chill our produce. You can’t sell it on the side of the road on a table in the middle of winter or in the middle of summer.”

Another farm stand in Colony, Lansing’s Farm Market & Greenhouses on Lisha Kill Road, is also a building with doors, windows, and electricity. Nor is there a certificate of occupancy from the city, said owner Al Lansing, who has worked on the eighth-generation family farm since 1964.

The battle between Colonie and Forts Ferry Farm over the road sign lasted 12 months, James Barker said.

“Our little $6,000 panel turned into a $20,000 panel after adding all the legal and professional fees,” Hearst said.

Barker said the city requires a separate zoning verification application be submitted, along with a $105 fee, for each non-farm activity, such as yoga, music, beekeeping workshops and even farm tours. farms.

“Are farm tours a city responsibility?” he said. Referring to the State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Barker said: “As we understand, everything about agriculture is the dominance of agriculture and markets, but the city is going from l ‘front and tries to regulate everything.”

Hearst said the city tried to stop construction of the farm’s greenhouses, only backing down when the farm’s attorney proved it was within the jurisdiction of the state agency.

“There’s so much overshoot,” Hearst said.

A business owner familiar with the farm’s disputes with the city, and who has run a business that provides services to other businesses for more than 30 years, said, “It feels like the city is in putting out what could be a truly unique and extraordinary quality. improving the quality of life of Colony residents. He was one of eight Colony small business owners who said in interviews over the past week that they had had similar infuriating run-ins with city officials. None, except Hearst and the Barkers, were willing to be identified for fear of reprisal in current or future cases before the city, they said.

“My architect and my site engineer were worried about working on the project precisely because it was in the town of Colonie,” said the owner of a business who has been trying to expand his building for a year. “They told me it would be easier to move (to another municipality).” After his architect had to revise the plans several times, the bill quadrupled to $12,000, according to the owner.

“Not everyone is able to keep spending money and time looking after the city,” the owner said. “It seems so unfriendly to small businesses, but they’re happy to see all the big chains coming in.”

Another homeowner, who works in manufacturing, said city inspectors asked him to tear up concrete to move a device half an inch. He said his general contractor had included a line item in the project budget listed as a more colorful version of “Town of Colonie (Shenanigans)”, adding $10,000. It was, the owner said, “for the weird processes, the random undoing, the extra hand-holding, and all the other ridiculous garbage the town needs.”

In other examples, a wellness business owner said approval for an expansion took four years; a hotel company was told that an existing outdoor feature could no longer be used; and the city insisted on a beauty firm installing accommodations that an expert consultant in the field said were not needed, adding what the owner called “significant and unnecessary expense”. Details of these plans have remained vague as the owners have said they do not want officials to recognize their business and possibly retaliate.

Sean M. Maguire, the town’s director of planning and economic development, referred the questions to the town supervisor’s office, saying he was not involved in the affairs of Forts Ferry Farm. However, in a Jan. 2 email to the farm’s attorney, Maguire wrote, “We need to discuss the overall plan for the farm.” Supervisor Peter G. Crummey’s office referred the questions to DeGiovine.

In a Sept. 7 email to Forts Ferry Farm, following questions about the farm stand, Donald W. DeLude Jr., senior commercial building inspector
and commercial zoning officer for the Colony Building Department, wrote that the farm stand was under scrutiny because it had been expanded beyond its original scope without approval, between other objections. He didn’t address the fact that the stand has been a permanent structure from the start.

DeLude added, “Going forward, anything above agriculture is subject to a zoning audit submission and may require review by other Colony City departments and / or building permit applications.”

Emma Hearst said officials appeared to base their app on what they saw on social media, saying emails containing questions and concerns from the city often included screenshots of posts from online accounts of the farm.

“Since we started, the city has always been a bit confused about our business,” Hearst said. “When we (presented) our design for our barn in 2016, they said it looked like a restaurant, and they didn’t even know why we needed a barn. We’re a farm! online and base their response on that instead of coming to see what we’re doing, they continually operate on assumptions, and the harassment on social media is so unprofessional.

James Barker said, “What we’re doing is the same thing happening on farms all over the country.”

“Small farms need to find dynamic ways to generate revenue, capture public interest and take advantage of the great spaces we have to keep it running like a farm,” he said. “The farms run tours. The farms run beekeeping classes. The farms run yoga. The farms run live music. But for some reason in Colony Town, it’s not related to the closed.”


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