2018-04-05 / Around Town

Public Workshop Held on Farm Businesses

By Jocelyn O’Neil

The Middletown Planning Board held a public workshop seeking resident input and detailing proposed revisions to the zoning ordinance that would allow farmers more business options in order to maintain their farms.

At the March 26 meeting, the board reassured residents that changing the zoning ordinances is meant to expand opportunities for farmers by allowing uses not currently permitted and not to restrict or take away any existing uses the Rhode Island Right to Farm Act protects.

Scott Millar, Manager of Community Technology Assistance at GrowSmart RI, and Jen West, a Coastal Training Program Coordinator at the Narragansett Bay Research Preserve, delivered a presentation outlining the details and benefits of the proposed ordinance change.

While working at the RI Department of Environmental Management in 2012, Millar wrote “Community Guidance to Maintain Working Farms and Forests,” which explains the concept of establishing an agricultural business overlay district that would be applied town-wide on active agricultural properties.

According to Millar, to establish an agricultural district, the town will need to “determine and define the type, location and intensity of business uses that are acceptable on farms currently zoned as residential and how to minimize potential negative impacts.”

Farmers can continue to operate their farms as businesses currently allowed by the Middletown Zoning Ordinance.

According to the Middletown Zoning Ordinance, types of businesses permitted on a farm property in residential areas are limited. West explained that only farm landowners with an existing agricultural operation are eligible to benefit from the economic incentives of adding an accessory use to their land, and the accessory business must be subordinate to the primary agricultural use of the property.

Other sections of the Zoning Ordinance that need to be revised to be consistent with the new language proposed are Section 602: Schedule of Uses and Districts, and Section 703: Accessory Uses and Structures, according to the drafted proposal.

According to RI General Law section 2-23, chapter 2-23-4, an agricultural operation is defined as “any commercial enterprise which has its primary purpose horticulture, viticulture, viniculture, floriculture, forestry, dairy farming or aquaculture, or the raising of livestock, furbearing animals, poultry or bees.”

In the Planning Board’s drafted amendment proposal, there are several accessory uses being considered, “including, but not limited to the following: food production, retail sales of farm/forest products, sale of landscaping materials, farm café, meeting space, classes and farm winery/brewery/distillery.”

West explained the “design criteria” proposed by the Planning Board to “set reasonable limits on things an accessory operation might need such as signage, parking, retail space and fencing so as to minimize the impact to abutting neighbors.”

Middletown resident and farm land owner Arleen Kaull attended the meeting to get a better understanding of the proposed zoning changes. She said she thought the design criteria for proposed accessory uses was restrictive.

“When I look at Sweet Berry Farm, I don’t know how it got there, and I’m glad it’s there, and it’s beautiful, but Sweet Berry is there and we did it without all of this,” said Kaull. “There must have been another avenue that they utilized. Why do we need this?”

Planning Board member Arthur Weber explained that the proposed amendments would “streamline the process” by eliminating the need for special-use permits for many uses.

According to Millar, whether a farm must obtain a special-use permit is based on the size of the farm and the intended use. In the Planning Board’s drafted proposal, it is considered a “small farm” if “the total acreage of the land upon which the agricultural operations are conducted, the primary residence and accessory building is less than 10 acres.” They define a “large farm” along the same parameters, except the amount of land is 10 acres or more.

According to Millar’s presentation, the uses and required permits for each farm size can fall into four categories: uses that are allowed on both small and large farms; uses for large farms only, not requiring a special-use permit; uses on large farms only with a special-use permit; and uses that are only allowed on small farms with a special-use permit.

According to the Planning Board’s proposed amendments, special-use permits would be required for yoga and other similar classes, livestock auctions, banquets for 200 people or less (large farms only), riding academies or schools (large farms only), and a winery/distillery/brewery. A farm café would be required to have a special-use permit only on a small farm.

Jan Eckhart, owner of Sweet Berry Farms, at 915 Mitchell’s Lane, was asked by the board to share his experience of the process of obtaining a special-use permit when his farm needed another stream of revenue.

“Our farm was the first one to go through this process and it was very difficult at the time,” said Eckhart. “It was grueling.

“The necessity to survive is the purpose of this proposal,” he said. “It makes sense because agriculture in Middletown, in RI basically, you can’t survive as a wholesale business alone. You’ve got to have retail or other ancillary uses, and this proposal is making an effort to do that without having an impact on the community.”

After the comments from Kaull and Eckhart, West broke down the proposal into two main objectives.

“One of the objectives of this proposal is to allow farmers these other uses to create some income so they don’t have to sell off their farm,” she said. “And the other one is to streamline the process of getting the more intensive uses a permit.”

Kaull remained undecided on the proposal because she lacked information on how the new zoning ordinance would affect tax-exempt status of farm land.

“The way to relieve farmers is to relieve their land,” said Kaull. “I need more information. I don’t know if this [zoning ordinance change] is the answer.”

Planning Board Chair Paul Croce closed the meeting by tabling the issue until the next Planning Board meeting on April 11.

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