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.