Heated agritourism debate at Planning Board
Amended permit process would allow expanded farm use, pending town approval of applicants
Planning Board members Allen Zeller, Richard Clark, and Tom Weeks listen to a discussion about an application for conditional use permit that will allow farms to offer wedding receptions, farm-to-table cafes, and farm dinners. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »
Planning Board Chair Ivy Vann speaks at their meeting on Tuesday. The Board accepted amendments to an application for a conditional Use permit that will allow farms to offer wedding receptions, farm-to-table cafes, and farm dinners. They will vote on this application on Sept. 8. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »
PETERBOROUGH — Farmers may soon be able to host wedding receptions, farm-to-table dinners, bed and breakfasts and other types of agritourism, if the Planning Board OKs a new permit process for farms. But town officials say this is a temporary, test amendment that could change come May voting.
However, Monday’s Planning Board meeting wasn’t without disagreement.
The dispute has been drawn out since May, when voters approved an amendment to the town’s conditional use permit submitted by petition to allow agritourism on 50-acre farms or larger in Peterborough’s Rural District, on a case-by-case basis. Each farmer would need a Conditional Use Permit from the town. Although the petition passed 470 to 376, the Planning Board opposed it, maintaining it was unenforceable in its existing form.
Board members said Monday they were concerned with how the revisions to the conditional use permit adopted in May left them unable to safeguard against any type of agritourism that attracted big crowds that might damage wetlands or the water supply, become a fire safety issue, or disturb neighbors and the community. They explained they were worried about where visitors to a farm would park, where septic systems or portable toilets should be placed, and how to ensure an event doesn’t become too noisy too, especially at night.
To address these problems, the board created an ad-hoc committee this summer that amended the application for the conditional use permit even more. The committee’s modifications, which the board approved Monday, ask an applicant to list each activity they plan to have on their farm, so the town can protect the land and the community.
Pete Throop, director of Peterborough’s Office of Community Development, said the town’s intent is to make this application as “non-burdensome” as possible for the applicants. He said the data need to answer each question the application asks for is already available from the Town Office, with the exception of whether or not an activity would harm a wetlands. Throop said he or a member of the Conservation Committee might have to inspect the farm to check on that.
If the board accepts these amendments on Sept. 8 when a public hearing on the matter will be held, then anyone who has completed an application can seek approval thereafter. This approval would last until May, when a revised amendment may go before voters.
Carrie Dumas of Peterborough was worried a farm would have to reapply for this permit every year. Throop assured her the town’s ultimate goal is to have the approval become permanent. This year’s application, he said, is an “interim” because they are testing this procedure.
The draft of the application, available at Monday’s meeting, shows that the changes the committee is asking for include a general explanation of the uses an applicant is proposing. In one section, the applicant must describe his or her requests. In another section of the application, the applicant will have to fill out a checklist that speaks directly to the town’s concerns. The applicant will have to answer where these events will be held on the farm, what time of year and how frequently they will occur, the maximum number of people they anticipate will participate, where everyone will park, and where portable or other toilets would be located.
Throop also spoke about the town asking an applicant to point out where they think wetlands are on their property or next to it, so they leave over 50 feet of separation between a parking or sanitation area and the wetland. This is to ensure an applicant doesn’t fall out of compliance with the town’s wetland ordinance.
“We’re looking for something concise,” Throop said, referring to the application. The checklist asks for where, when, how often, and how large this event will be. It also asks how large a parking lot they will make, how many cars they expect to be there, where should parking overflow to if the event becomes larger, and how will bathrooms and sanitation be provided.
Although the board is pushing this application forward, it became apparent that certain members of the board and the six residents in the audience were frustrated with these procedures.
Swift Corwin III of Peterborough, toward the end of the meeting, said the application isn’t very “business-friendly” if someone is interested in starting a farm in Peterborough that would also offer hayrides, for example.
Vice Chair Tom Weeks and Throop both said this process resembles starting any new business. If you were buying a property to start a business, you would include in the contract that the sale is complete, subject to town approval.
Vann responded to Corwin’s remark, saying, “That’s what it means to live in a community.”
Vann later said the Planning Board believes in allowing farmers to expand the use of their farms. “We want to make them successful. One of the ways is to be sure they’re not frightening for everyone,” she said, referring to agritourism events. “They may not seem frightening to you. But they are to some people.”
Board member Audrey Cass said this is a “testing ground” for neighbors to become accustomed to changes in the neighborhood. “It’s a way of tentatively feeling and building security for the future,” Cass said.
Although member Richard Clark applauded some of the amendments, he expressed disapproval because the application would allow one board member to delay the process if he or she disliked a proposal. When Vann asked him how this application could be improved, he said it should be more “streamlined” and shouldn’t include superfluous sections.
“I’m just saying you made it quite complex. It does work. You thought of everything,” Clark said.
Cass assured Clark, saying a subcommittee drafted this proposal and put a lot of consideration into it. “Would it be nice to have it more streamlined? Yes,” Cass said. But, these amendments, she said, protect against any “encumbrances” that can occur. She also said these amendments are the “first step” in “due process,” and the town will narrow more things down next May at the polls.
Clark concluded the meeting, acknowledging the subcommittee didn’t do a bad job. But, he said he joined the Planning Board to protect the rights of individuals. “All I wanted to make sure is they have their say. They have it with me.”
Benji Rosen can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228, or firstname.lastname@example.org.