Article 10 Post Mortem

WhiteBarnFarmTown Meeting voted to Indefinitely Postpone Article 10 on Monday. The Citizen’s Petition’s sponsor Leo Immonen, a long time Wrentham government official and tireless booster of the community, proposed to help our commercial farmers, particularly the White Barn Farm, build financially sustainable farming operations by adding a new definition to the bylaws that allowed them to operate, at their discretion, “food service(s), programs and revenue-generating events such as tours, dinners, weddings, and musical performances.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Immonen and White Barn Farm owners Chris Kantlehner and Christy Raymond gave impassioned and moving speeches in support of the measure.

I believe very few people at Town Meeting were untouched by their pathos and vision. The majority of the people in town support the spirit of the proposition and very much want for White Barn Farm to succeed.

Unfortunately, bylaws are not written for good people like Chris Kantlehner and Christy Raymond, whose character and intentions are impeccable, they’re written because we can’t trust everyone else to be like them.

Town Meeting recognized that the bylaw was flawed because it offered neither regulatory guidelines nor a transparent mechanism for including abutters in the decision to add new uses.

With that in mind, I hope sincerely that the White Barn Farm, owners sharpen their pencil and work with the Planning Board to write a bylaw or a set of regulations that permits those accessory uses while including checks and balances to protect the neighbors’ rights and concerns.

My municipal law is a bit rusty but I’m pretty sure the Planning Board can sponsor a more meticulously worded bylaw for the very next Special Town Meeting.

In the meanwhile, perhaps the farm’s principals, the abutters, and the town can work out a temporary arrangement to allow them to pilot test the proposed accessory uses?

Article 9 naysayers barely hold off a vigorous campaign

Once again both the abuters and the developer failed to achieve a conclusive resolution on the issue of  how to develop the Lorusso property sitting on the Route 1/495 interchange.

In the meanwhile, the community continues to suffer the fall out from this very noxious debate as empty-nesters and preservationists battle against families with young children for how to fund the schools and other municipal services.

It’s time to step out of the echo bunkers and engage in a productive discussion that acknowledges neither party will achieve total victory.

Last time, Mr. Lorusso was overwhelmingly defeated. This time opponents of Article 9 barely held off a vigorous attempt by members of the community and the developer to rezone the parcel to C2.

According to the Wrentham Clerk’s office  425 votes were recorded for Article 9. In a stunning reversal from the results of the owner’s last attempt to rezone that property, the yay-sayers garnered  247 yes votes  to the nay-sayer’s 178 no votes. Nevertheless, state law requires a 2/3 majority for zoning amendments which means the initiative fell short by about 34 votes.

The town clerk’s office unofficially estimates approximately 500 registered voters checked in at the beginning of the meeting. which suggests a net loss of 75 voters by the time Town Meeting took up Article 9.

Because of the Warrant’s size, the high likelihood the meeting would be continued, and Financial Committee Chair Jerry McGovern’s unavailability on Tuesday, June 11, Moderator Keith Billian took the FinCom articles out-of-order. That put off action on Article 9 until much later in the evening.

It’s not clear who left or why, however many supporters believe it was parents with school aged children, whom they reckoned as yes votes.

There were presentations given by the Economic Development Committee, the developer’s representative, Amy O’Brien, a vocal abutter and naysayer, and proponent Diedre Foley.

In addition the Moderator took comments from abutters and which point then someone moved the question. That deprived Town Meeting of the opportunity to vet the competing facts and suss out more concessions from the developer.

The sad thing is for all the energy spent on this issue, nothing really got resolved. No one believes the developer will give up on his quest to rezone. Neither does anyone think the Madison Street neighborhood will change its mind.

It’s time for the community to step in and articulate a vision for that property which protects the abutters interests and allows the property owner to develop the parcel to its highest use. Both parties have to grow up and accept less than what they want.

We need to get all the parties together and find ways to build consensus instead of waiting for the developer, the abutters, and the Wrentham-is-a-country-town-love-it-or-leave-it crowd to find common ground on their own. That is not going to happen.

It’s a failure on the part of both the abutters and the developer to strike a bargain. The former have to accept some consequences for buying homes in such close proximity to a major highway interchange (regardless of what they thought the day they signed the deed) and the land owner needs to make a credible and sincere effort to mitigate the impact upon the Madison Street residents.

Otherwise,  the debate over the Lorusso property will continue acting like a bad hot dog. It will keep on repeating until the community finds a way to keep it in our stomach long enough to digest. But rest assured, it’s eventually coming out the other end.

Vote Yes on Article 9

Note: Wrentham’s Annual Town Meeting is scheduled for 7:30pm Monday, June 10 at King Philip Regional High School. Registered voters can participate. Get a copy of the Warrant

I strongly urge Wrentham voters to vote yes on Article 9. Wrentham’s Economic Development Committee has put together an Article 9 Q & A that explains many of the issues. It is a reasonable place from which to begin your own analysis.

For me there are two things to consider, one practical and one philosophical. As a practical matter, long-term flat growth and annually increasing expenses have created an ever widening gap between municipal revenue and expenses that cannot be bridged with spending cuts.

The greatest effect of this phenomenon has been on our children’s education. I’ve seen this first hand at both the Elementary school and at the High School. Unless we figure out a way to close the gap this will continue to worsen.

On-going residential development will continue to exert downward pressure on our budgets. There are several large scale residential subdivisions actively under development right now. They will increase our population by 160+ new families.  Since most people have at least two children that means our school tax burden will increase in the neighborhood of $900k a year.

Unless we want the deterioration of our children’s education to continue, we need to find additional sources of revenue. Relief won’t come from slashing expenses. The money will come from increased tax revenue, whether residential or commercial.

Detractors kvetch about traffic. They decry the loss of the town’s “rural” character. They say there are already many acres currently zoned for business, therefore, we should draw a line in the sand.

The number of other properties zoned a certain way have nothing to do with a specific parcel or opportunity. Every land owner has the right to dispose of his or her property according to individual circumstances.

As to the rural character argument, I respectfully remind those who make it, every square inch of Wrentham was owned by somebody the day each of us arrived in town. That land was not purchased to give us a good view or a certain lifestyle.  And don’t forget someone developed your property so you could live on it. That means a developer cut down trees, displaced wildlife or put houses where there were once farms.

Believe me, I get it. I cried the day I drove down Upper Union Street and saw those beautiful three hundred year old trees lying on the ground in pieces. And now the nuns have displaced a gorgeous field with acres of  ugly solar panels. I agree abutters and the community should be involved in fair and transparent discussions about land use. I agree we should have rules that compel property owners to consider their neighbors’ interests when developing the land. But I only own the property on which my house sits.

In the end, approving the zoning change is the right thing to do. The increased tax revenue will shore up eroding budgets. And, we have no right to hold the owners assets hostage in perpetuity because we don’t like anything they propose and we can’t afford to buy them out.

Changing the underlying zoning does not abdicate our rights to shape the finished product. The special permit process enumerates strict requirements for development which take into account the best interests of the abutters and the community by law.

The resulting finished product will reflect the rights and concerns of all the stakeholders. Just show up at the Planning Board meetings, ask a lot of questions, and speak up.

Vote no on Article 10

Note: Wrentham’s Annual Town Meeting is scheduled for 7:30pm Monday, June 10 at King Philip Regional High School. Registered voters can participate. Get a copy of the Warrant

In my mind, there’s no debating the underlying motivation for Article 10 on the upcoming Wrentham Town Meeting Warrant. Both the community and the “farmers” will benefit from economically viable farm operations. Likewise, I appreciate the efforts of the people who proposed it and their supporters. Thank you for your time and talent to make a better Wrentham.

For me the question is not about reflexively thwarting changes to our zoning bylaws or whether to permit the uses implied by the new definition but whether Article 10 is the right vehicle to accomplish the goal.

The devil is in the language:

“Agricultural Accessory Uses. Food service, programs and revenue-generating events such as tours, dinners, weddings, and musical performances, which are appropriate in scale to the premisses and any surrounding residential area, including the preparation and serving of food and beverages for such events. These accessory uses are to supplement the income from the agricultural use of land as exempted from regulations or restrictions in zoning bylaws as defined in Section 3. Chapter 40A of Massachusetts General Laws. Adequate off-street parking must be provided.”

The new Agricultural Accessory Use definition gives our agricultural use landowners broad discretion to add vaguely defined accessory uses without without having to consult with their neighbors. The proposed amendment as written raises too many unanswered questions:

  • What constitutes a program?
  • What exactly is a “revenue-generating” event?
  • How do we define “appropriate to scale”
  • How do we define adequate parking?
  • Can landowners build permanent food service and preparation facilities, a/k/a  a restaurant or commercial kitchen?
  • What percentage of the income must be derived from the original agricultural use?
  • What recourse does the community or the town have if there’s a disagreement with the landowner’s judgment?

Without language that spells out in detail the uses and requirements described in the new definition, the terms described therein rest at the precipice of a very slipper slope.

It’s not a stretch to worry that this zoning amendment creates a temptation to add accessory uses that may eventually pave the way for businesses that are farms in name only. So instead of preserving the farms we may actually create the environment that leads to their eventual demise.

Further, the agricultural use goes beyond growing crops for sale. And they are permitted by right in all of our residential neighborhoods.

Such a permissive definition also creates a temptation for other property owners to declare agriculture as their land’s primary use and then, by right, add any number of the loosely described accessory uses–all with no recourse available to abutters or the town except a civil suit.

It’s been suggested that M.G.L. 40A §3 safeguards the community from such abuses but not really. Again, the devil is in the language. The Commonwealth prescribes income derived from non-farming activity as follows. During June through September or the harvest season of the agricultural product grown on the land, owners or lessees must make 25% of their revenue from products grown on the land.

That means during the growing season the other 75% of their operational income can come from any of the vaguely defined accessory uses described in Article 10. For the rest of the year, “farmers” can make 100% of their income from anything else permissible under local zoning.

Trusting our farming families is not the issue. Indeed, I know personally or through respected mutual acquaintances the owners and operators of Wrentham’s large-scale farms.  They are nice people and good neighbors and valuable members of our community. I trust them.

But property owners’ and aubtters’ needs don’t always fit hand in glove. And given that we make decisions about where we live based on the zoning of the moment, we need  an impartial permitting process to insure a fair and transparent conversation about adding new uses.

No land owner, including our farmers, should be exempt from the requirement to apply for zoning variances or to the Planning Board to add or change uses just because we trust a particular group or because we hope to preserve the last vestiges of our agricultural heritage.

Therefore, I urge people to vote no on Article 10.

An observation about zoning bylaws

An observation about zoning bylaws: we all agree they’re never perfect and whether we own the property in question or not, we hope to organize the rules in ways that benefit our own ideas about where we live or our own financial needs.

Having spent over six years on the Wrentham Planning Board, I have noticed abutters and the community tend to think of zoning bylaws as a rigid set of rules for holding landowners to prescribed uses. This seems especially true of residential property owners who live near the edges of commercial land.  Property owners, developers or business owners in particular, most often think of zoning bylaws as an obstacle to maximizing a  return on their investments.

Both are true after a fashion but I’ve grown to think of zoning as something else entirely. They mark a place in a sometimes contentious, always boring conversation among the people of a community about what we were, what we are, and what we hope to become.

The stakes are high because land and buildings are money disguised as dirt, rocks, plants, and building materials. Even so, we’re fortunate to have a land use laws that strive to balance the interests of the various parties equitably.

That conversation takes place at Planning Board meetings, Zoning Board meetings, Town Meeting, in neighborhood groups, and in the local press.

There are many things I dislike about the process. People act out of fear. They seldom educate themselves sufficiently to talk about the issues intelligently. They can be blind to logic. They can be excruciatingly cruel to their neighbors and government officials. And they hold grudges.

But in places like Wrentham, MA we have the right to have the conversation and the little guy has as much chance of prevailing as the big guy.

Farmer Friendly Zoning at Wrentham Town Meeting

Farmer friendly zoning in Wrentham is an noble cause. We can and should help our few remaining full time farm operations to remain economically viable over the long haul and thereby preserve an important part of our community’ heritage.

Article 10 on the June 10 Wrentham Town Meeting Warrant proposes to do that very thing by adding a new definition for Section 4.2 of Wrentham Zoning Bylaws called “Agricultural Accessory Uses.”

When I first read about the amendment in a letter to the editor published on wrenthamtimes.com, I thought what a wonderful idea. Someone wants to create zoning that allows agricultural use property owners discretion to operate with flexible business models. Then they can continue to farm their land while availing themselves of other economic opportunities–in other words, farmer friendly zoning.

Is Article 10 the right vehicle for farmer friendly zoning?

There’s no debating the underlying motivation for Article 10. Both the community and the “farmers” will benefit from economically viable farm operations.  They can make a decent living. We preserve  Wrentham’s last vestiges of genuine rural character.

Likewise, I truly appreciate the intentions behind the amendment. The people who proposed it are tireless boosters who have given their time and talent to make a better Wrentham.

The devil is in the language:

“Agricultural Accessory Uses. Food service, programs and revenue-generating events such as tours, dinners, weddings, and musical performances, which are appropriate in scale to the premisses and any surrounding residential area, including the preparation and serving of food and beverages for such events. These accessory uses are to supplement the income from the agricultural use of land as exempted from regulations or restrictions in zoning bylaws as defined in Section 3. Chapter 40A of Massachusetts General Laws. Adequate off-street parking must be provided.”

Article 10 gives agricultural use landowners broad discretion to prepare and serve food on the premisses, hold programs, and “revenue-generating events” without any due process and without examining how those activities might affect their neighbors, or the impact those added uses might have to a neighborhood.

The only limits the new definition places on those activities is that they must be “appropriate in scale to the premisses and any surrounding area” for the purpose of supplementing their “income from the agricultural use of the land.” Otherwise, the addition of new uses rest solely with qualifying property owners.

Unfortunately, Article 10 as written raises questions instead of “clarify[ing] accessory or additional activities”

  • What constitutes a program?
  • What exactly is a “revenue-generating” event
  • How do we define “appropriate to scale”
  • Can landowners build permanent food preparation facilities?
  • What percentage of the income must be derived from the original agricultural use?
  • How does the town determine adequate parking?
  • What recourse do abutters have if they disagree with the landowner’s judgment?

Without language that spells out in detail the uses and requirements enumerated in the new definition, the terms rest at the precipice of a very slipper slope.

It’s not a stretch to conclude that this zoning amendment makes it tempting to add accessory uses that may eventually economically supersede the original farm use. Rather than preserving the farms, we may see businesses that are farms in name only–all without the due process.

Further, the various agricultural uses are permitted by right in all of our residential neighborhoods. This leaves open the possibility that a property owner can state agriculture as its primary use by right and then, by right, add any number of the loosely described accessory uses all with no recourse available to abutters or the town except a civil suit.

Trust

Trusting our farming families is not the issue. Indeed, I know personally or through respected mutual acquaintances the owners and operators of Wrentham’s large-scale farms.  They are nice people and good neighbors and valuable members of our community. I trust them.

But property owners’ and aubtters’ needs don’t always fit hand in glove. And given that we make decisions about where we live based on the zoning of the moment, we need  an impartial permitting process to insure a transparent conversation about adding new uses.

Vote No on Article 10 and Yes for Due Process

Clearly the goals of Article 10 speaks to all three elements of the discussion. However noble its intentions, its language gives unilateral discretion to one party. That is not in the long term interest of the town.

Agricultural use property owners, including our farmers, should not be exempt from the requirement to apply to the Planning Board to add or change uses just because we trust this particular group of farmers or because we hope to preserve a veneer of our agricultural past.

The special permit process guarantees that all the stake holders who wish to do so have an opportunity to participate in the conversations about the proposed changes.

I’d like to thank the Article 10’s sponsors and supporters for the time and talent they gave to the community for such a noble cause.

Nevertheless, I suggest people vote no because the language of this amendment is too imprecise to protect the whole community.

Perhaps the amendment sponsors will revisit this issue and suggest a course of action that supports the farming community while protecting the interests of the other stakeholders.