Middletown Eases Restrictions on Small Farm Businesses

MIDDLETOWN – In an effort to give local farmers more opportunities for additional revenue, on Wednesday night the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission approved easing restrictions on small farms looking to open a farm stand – and the commission is considering regulations for on-farm wineries and breweries.

Under Middletown’s existing regulations, permanent, year-round farmers markets were permitted in residential areas by special exception, but only on properties of at least 20 acres that abut a state highway.

The change made Wednesday would allow farmers markets by special exception on properties of at least 5 acres, and would not require an adjacent state highway. It would also allow more special events and uses on properties of at least 20 acres, including hay rides, farm animal petting zoos, farm and craft related seminars, food trucks, farm festivals and private events.

The proposed change allowing “farm breweries” and “farm wineries” is based on a similar regulation in Tolland. The commission tabled that discussion so City Planner Marek Kozikowski could finalize the language.

On a case by case basis, the farm stands and events would still require approval for an exception by the commission. The same is true of the wineries and breweries if the commission approves those regulations.

In a recent conversation with CT Examiner, Josh Eddinger, a Durham resident whose family owns the Stone Post Garden farm stand in Middletown and has run a farm stand in the city since 1992, said he thought the proposed regulations would provide farms in Middletown with new opportunities to evolve and survive in the competitive agricultural landscape of Connecticut.

“If you look at the successful farms in our area, they tend to have a couple of income streams,” Eddinger said. “Lyman Orchard is probably the biggest one, and they’ve become successful not just on selling apples, but by selling the experience of going to the farm and being able to pick apples, and go into their apple barrel and they have bakery items – it’s a whole experience that you rely on to bring people to the farm.”

It’s no secret that high land prices and low margins have caused many farms in Connecticut to shut down. But Eddinger said that one thing New England does have is plenty of people, so the key is getting people to visit farms and buy from them directly. 

In Durham, Eddinger said the town adopted regulations to allow for “farm event facilities,” which Gastler Farm used as an opportunity to open an event space. 

“There’s lots of towns that are picking up these ideas and saying, would we allow a farm to do other things inside of our town, or inside of our city,” Eddinger said.

The changes had unanimous support from the commission, and one of the only concerns was that only allowing the special events and other uses on properties with 20 acres or more was too restrictive – a concern raised by commission member James O’Connell, who said the limits were excessive for food trucks.

Kozikowski explained that he chose a limit of 20 acres because it was the size in the existing farm stand regulations. According to Kozikowski, the large acreage would give the commission more protection if it received an application with parking concerns.

In recent years, with the support of state government, towns across Connecticut have put added emphasis on protecting open space. 

Middletown has used bond funds to purchase hundreds of acres of open space, some of which is then leased out to farmers. But for Eddinger, while preserving open space in general is a worthwhile goal that benefits the community, preserving open space by supporting local farms is even better. He said that’s something the town has made progress on since its Conservation Commission became the Commission on Conservation and Agriculture several years ago.

The city took another step during its last review of the Plan of Conservation and Development last year, including language that emphasizes protecting prime farmland and using it to increase the local food supply. 

The plan included calls for a regional farmer’s market based in Middletown, and for changing regulations to give farmers more options. Eddinger said they are doing now by considering these changes – which came out of discussions in the Commission on Conservation and Agriculture.

“I think maybe it’s a collective sort of wakeup in the area of, ‘well we need to start providing more opportunities for our farms if we want to see them survive,’” he said.

Eddinger said he doesn’t have any specific plans to take advantage of the new regulations, but he said he hopes it will be a benefit to Middletown farmers, including his family. The proposed regulations would open doors for farms in Middletown to look at what other opportunities there could be, he said.

“It’s become harder and harder to keep the farm afloat, even with having the farm stand,” Eddinger said. “It’s even harder today than it was 20 years ago, so there’s a need to evolve again.”

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