PORTSMOUTH — For nearly three decades, loyal customers have flocked to Arthur and Laura Mello’s farm stand on Boyd’s Lane to purchase corn on the cob, tomatoes, zucchini and other fresh produce.
Only in the past year, however, did local officials learn that he property on which the farm stand sits is actually owned by the town. Not only that, the Mellos have not been paying any rental fees for use of the land.
The Mellos, who live in Tiverton, said a previous town council granted them permission to operate on the land, near 364 Boyd’s Lane, after Mr. Mello approached the town back in 1984. Every year since then, the couple has applied for and received a holiday sales license, according to Ms. Mello.
The couple applied for its most recent license last fall, but on Oct. 15, 2012 received a letter from then-Town Solicitor Donato Andrea D’Andrea which directed the family to cease using the town property “until such time as you have made arrangements satisfactory to the town for its use.” The couple was directed to contact Town Administrator John Klimm to discuss the issue.
Shortly after getting that letter, however, the Mellos received its holiday sales license, which allowed the farm stand to operate through Dec. 1, 2013.
“We saw this as a good sign,” Ms. Mello told the Town Council Monday night. She added that in April, the couple received the town’s annual request for proof of insurance — another indication that the stand would be allowed to operate, she said.
But on May 15 the Mellos received an e-mail indicating that the council had discussed the matter in executive session and voted that the couple may no longer run the farm stand on the property.
The news caught the couple by surprise, Ms. Mello said.
“This is the main part of our family’s income. This is how we make a living,” Ms. Mello said, adding that the deadlines for many farmers’ markets have already passed and wholesale growers have already signed on with other farm stands.
Council member Elizabeth Pedro said most members of the panel were not aware that the land was owned by the town. “Having that hoop house there year round makes it look like it’s private property,” she said.
Council President James Seveney said the current council didn’t know of any deal the Mellos had with the town until recently, and that there are many implications of allowing such an agreement to stand. “One obvious one was, how come you guys are getting such a good deal?” he said, adding that the council should be serving the best interests of the town, “and not your business.”
As for the mixed messages sent by the license renewal and the solicitor’s letter, Mr. Seveney blamed that on “ships crossing in the night.”
Council Vice President John Blaess said he didn’t want the town to cause a hardship for the Mellos. A short-term rental agreement with the family should be worked out for now, with a longer lease negotiated in the future, he said.
Zoning violation claimed
Council member Keith Hamilton said property ownership isn’t the only issue facing the farm stand, which he claimed is violating the town’s zoning ordinance.
“This produce is being grown in Tiverton,” he said, noting that the ordinance states that any food sold must be grown on site or on an adjacent parcel.
“It’s been OK with the town for 30 years and here we are in June,” replied Ms. Mello.
Town Administrator John Klimm agreed that the farm stand is not permitted under the zoning ordinance, and that “town-owned land can’t be used for free.”
Mr. Klimm added that volunteers who manage the adjoining Founder’s Brook Park want to make improvements there and could use part of the property on which the farm stand sits for parking. “Why would we give preferential treatment?” he asked. “We need to fix this.”
The council voted 5-1, with Mr. Hamilton against, to direct Mr. Klimm to negotiate a deal for the Mellos to use the farm stand through Dec. 1.
After that, the future for the farm stand is up in the air, Mr. Seveney said.
“I would suggest to you that the longer term has lot of question marks for you,” he told the Mellos.