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Farm ordinance needs some work

It’s understandable that farmers in Peterborough are searching for ways to make a living on their land. This is not the heartland, where miles of fields of corn, wheat or soybeans can generate a healthy annual income. It’s also no longer truly dairy country, either; most of the farmers who keep cows around here are running pretty small-scale operations.

So in an effort to expand their options, a group of farmers got together to put a petition article on Peterborough’s Town Warrant back in May. The amendment to the zoning ordinance was intended to provide a way for farmers who own 50 acres or more of land in the rural district to do more on their property — provided they get conditional use approval from the Planning Board. Some of the “diversified agricultural business enterprise” examples listed as possible allowed uses under the ordinance are farm-to-table events, farm dinners, weddings, hayrides and foliage tours. The amendment also listed “bed-and-breakfast, farm-stay, or other nightly, weekly, seasonal or other short-term lodging” as allowed uses.

The ordinance passed, by a vote of 470 to 376, at the polls in May.

So what’s the problem? Well, the ordinance refers to an Agricultural Business Enterprise Zone. There is no such zone in Peterborough. It can’t be enforced as written. And there are no clear guidelines for granting a conditional use permit, so it’s quite vague as to what would actually be allowed.

Despite that, the Planning Board has taken note of the will of the voters. On Monday, board members and town officials took a first step toward attempting to address the concerns of the farmers. They held a well-attended a workshop to gather input on how to develop a workable, enforceable ordinance.

It’s clear that voters — in theory — support the effort of the farmers to diversify. Now it’s time to figure out how to make that a reality. In order for an ordinance like this to work, the Planning Board must have some guidelines to follow. What types of activities should be allowed? What hours of operation? How do you account for traffic, parking, visual impact? Answering those questions will require a lot of input from the farmers themselves. They’re the ones who can tell the Planning Board in detail what they hope to accomplish.

Some of those who campaigned hard to get the amendment approved were in attendance at Monday’s workshop. We’re confident that if they continue to participate, they’ll be able to help the Planning Board craft a workable amendment that will protect the interests of everyone in town.

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