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WHEATFIELD – Despite the town’s massive residential growth in the past 20 years, 28 percent of Wheatfield’s surface area is still farmed.

Efforts to prevent that figure from falling further were the topic of a public meeting here Tuesday.

The town hired planners Wendy Salvati and Jocelyn Gordon to prepare a Farmland and Agricultural Protection Plan, although they admitted the town’s options are limited.

They boil down to the town buying the land or tinkering with its zoning code to make it harder for developers to build, Salvati told the Town Board and about 15 residents, including farmers, in the Wheatfield Community Center.

“Isn’t that actually hurting the farmer by taking away a place for them to sell?” Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said.

Salvati said Clarence passed a referendum to earmark a small portion of tax revenue to create a fund to buy land from farmers who wanted to sell, and then leased that land to other farmers.

“You can’t stop developers from coming in and buying land. You can’t stop farmers from selling land,” Salvati said.

Town Attorney Robert J. O’Toole said another possibility would be for the town to buy development rights to farmland and sell them.

Gordon said farms require fewer public services and help keep taxes lower. “Farmland is the best value in helping you maintain low property taxes,” Salvati said.

“We need a public awareness campaign,” focus group member Kris Taylor said. “People tell me Wheatfield used to be a farming community. Used to be.”

“They don’t notice it until it’s gone,” said Justin Higner, chairman of the town’s green space focus group.

Salvati said one of the draft goals of her report is to win support from the nonfarm community for farm preservation.

Councilman Larry L. Helwig said, “One way to protect [farmland] is to have an active brownfields program so they’re not gobbling up green space. Industry can go back where industry used to be.”

“Our town can’t handle much more development,” farmer Randy Walck said. “You can’t get things taken care of like you did years ago.”

He referred to the town’s troubles with drainage and a backlog in clearing ditches and culverts as symptoms of overdevelopment.

The town still has 5,054 acres of farmland out of its total area of 17,966 acres, and the northern half of the town remains mostly rural.

“The public has no idea that probably half of that [farm] map is rented land,” focus group member Dave Anastasi said. “That’s what’s vulnerable.”

“Farmland is as important to green space as our forests are,” Higner said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com