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.

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