Editorial: ‘Farming’ —  see you in court

Posted 2/27/20

To the dismay of some of their neighbors, Westport farmers, both real and imagined, may suddenly enjoy opportunities available to no other class of business or property owner.

That became evident …

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Editorial: ‘Farming’ —  see you in court

Posted

To the dismay of some of their neighbors, Westport farmers, both real and imagined, may suddenly enjoy opportunities available to no other class of business or property owner.

That became evident when residents of Sodom Road and beyond turned out at a recent Zoning Board meeting to protest one farmer’s plan to serve alcohol at his farm stand.

“It is a petition to operate a saloon, not an agricultural use,” one resident protested.

The applicant didn’t appreciate the description but said that since Right to Farm includes agri-entertainment and agri-tourism, town law is on his side.

Added his attorney, “The commercial use doesn’t have to be farm-like, it has to attract people to the farm. That’s what the bylaw says … I don’t think the bylaw says, you know, commercial activities that we think are going to work nicely. I think the definition is clear.”

In other words, anything goes when it comes to drawing crowds down on the farm. The bylaw lacks detail, is open to interpretation, and therein lies much of its impact.

Zoning Board members didn’t like the notion of alcohol sales any better than the neighbors but had trouble finding something in the statute upon which to pin a ‘no’ vote. Just what is a “farm-related experience” anyway? Must you grow what you sell as is the case at the vineyard? 

One board member, an outspoken supporter of enhanced Right to Farm, said it was certainly never meant to include alcoholic beverage licenses. “I can’t ever see that happening.” But where is that spelled out, some wondered.

Lots of things can draw people to a farm, another said, “crazy things like motorcycle races. It draws people to the farm (but) do you want to live next to it?”

Compounding the confusion, as the chairman noted at the recent special town meeting, is the fact that the definition of farm now eliminates size limits. Get yourself a couple of chickens, no matter how small your lot, and you’ve set yourself up as a farmer — inspections optional, let the good times roll.

The board voted to deny the application but admitted that they’ve probably set Westport up for a court fight.

“This is a judgement call,” the chairman said . “There has to be a limit somewhere.” 

Said another “The potential is there for enormous, never-ending expansion … This is a time to nip it in the bud, to say this isn’t allowed. And let it take its course, let an appeal be filed.”

Given Westport’s new definition of ‘farm,’ every property owner in town would have a stake in that court case. 

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.