Agricultural ordinance viability sparks debate

PETERBOROUGH: New agricultural district warrant article draws debate from both sides of the issue

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PETERBOROUGH — More than 20 farmers, citizens and elected officials met in the Peterborough Town House on Monday to address issues surrounding the recently adopted zoning amendment on uses of agricultural land in the Rural District.

At the Planning Board meeting, feelings ranged from anger and frustration to gratitude and appreciation. Despite the diversity of emotions, however, one thing was clear: figuring out how to administer and enforce the ordinance will be complicated.

In May, Peterborough voters approved a zoning amendment, submitted by petition, that calls for allowing certain uses on land in the Rural District, subject to the issuance of a Conditional Use Permit by the Planning Board. These uses include, but are not limited to, farm-to-table cafes, farm dinners, hayrides, foliage tours, wedding receptions, seasonal festivities, bed and breakfasts, and other farm events. The amendment to the zoning ordinance applies to all parcels 50 acres or more, or contiguous parcels under the same ownership or management with a total area of 50 acres or more, located in the Rural District. It passed by a margin of 470 to 376, even though Planning Board members had opposed the petition, saying it was unenforceable as written.

Ian McSweeney of New Boston, the executive director of The Russell Farm and Forest Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that provides assistance for land conservation, wrote the petition amendment in collaboration with local Peterborough landowners. At Monday’s meeting, McSweeney said his hope in writing the amendment was to help farmers diversify income sources and remain viable financially.

“Farming in Peterborough is really an economic struggle at best,” he said. “The average farmer in New Hampshire makes about $18,000 a year. We wanted to create a way to bring in varied and consistent income streams. We wanted to support reasonable farm business ventures that are connected to farms,” he said.

Those in attendance had differing views on the proposal.

Gil Duval of Peterborough, who identified himself as a lifelong old school farmer, said, “Anybody that has to go to this is not a farmer... This ordinance is disgusting.”

Responding to Duval, Andrea Cadwell of Peterborough stood and said, “What is happening now is real, it’s happening with real people, with real farmers and with real concerns.”

McSweeney pointed to one of the proposed uses — bed and breakfasts — as an example of how the amendment is intended to provide options. These businesses are currently regulated and allowed in parts of Peterborough, but are not allowed in the Rural District. McSweeney said if farmers could use part of their home as bed and breakfasts, they would generate more sustainable incomes.

“Historically, people living in rural districts were probably the ones who had rooms to rent. It makes sense they should be able to do this again,” McSweeney said.

Planning Board Chair Ivy Vann and others on the board said that the amendment as written does not give enough direction and lacks standards necessary for implementation.

Pete Throop, Peterborough’s director of Community Development, called the language in the ordinance “ambiguous.” He said that while some people argue that the amendment is valid, others suggest it does not include standards necessary to meet state requirements and argue that it is not clear.

Some people, Throop said, are “deathly afraid that this ordinance opens the door to large-scale commercial businesses in regional districts and will hurt the character of the town.”

Francie Von Mertens of Peterborough said abutters and neighbors have valid concerns about the types of activities that may occur on farms because of the amendment.

“It’s the unintended consequences that we need to worry about,” Von Mertens said.

Throop said ordinances normally go through multiple drafts and are discussed in numerous public meetings, a process that can take nine months to one year to complete, Throop said.

“It’s hard for a landowner to be forced to wait a year, so they made their own draft and submitted it. I do understand,” said Throop. “But, the [current] language might not even be doing what they wanted it to do.”

McSweeney said he understands the criticism surrounding the wording of the amendment, but hopes that this doesn’t mean it will be deemed unusable.

“I like what some of the town officials were saying, that they were thinking of creating a tiered approach — taking into account the size of the proposed event and the number of guests, and then determining if a permit is needed based on that,” McSweeney said.

In response, Vann said, “Because we feel it is important and the town agreed on its importance, we are going to do our best to make [the amendment] usable.”

She anticipates the Planning Board will use the next year to research and gather opinions, ultimately seeking to amend the ordinance that was passed to meet state requirements.

“We want to make it cleaner, more rational and easier to understand,” Vann said.

Planners anticipate going to the voters with an amended version of the zoning ordinance.

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