LYME — Barns, cows, fields, and vegetable stands are considered part of the character of Lyme, but in many instances agriculture does not comply with town zoning codes.
The gaps in the town’s zoning code became apparent in early 2016, when Sunset Hill Vineyard requested changes that would allow wine tastings, which were approved after a long public hearing.
Later that year a subcommittee that included two farmers formed to write agricultural zoning regulations that were intended to include the uses farms need to be viable.
But the subcommittee’s draft regulations were never finalized, and years passed.
Flash forward to Monday night’s Planning and Zoning public hearing where new agricultural regulations – written by a P&Z member – were presented that contained significant changes from the subcommittee’s draft and, according to several farmers who spoke at the meeting, could impair farming operations in Lyme.
“These regulations need to permit all the diverse activities that allow farms to survive, or better yet, thrive economically,” Bill Farrell, co-owner of Fat Stone Farm, which produces maple syrup and other products, told the commission.
Farrell, a member of the original subcommittee, said his three biggest concerns about the draft regulations were changes in how farmland was classified, language that would eliminate production of maple syrup and honey, and restrictions on processing crops.
“A farm would now be defined as land on which agricultural use is the primary activity and where a residence must be incidental to the agricultural use,” he said. “It’s a dramatic change. There are only a handful of properties in Lyme where this is currently the case.”
Farrell said that 99.9% of the farms in Lyme would not be considered farms.
“That’s quite draconian and very restrictive to the non-farms where their residence is primary and yet they have some incidental farming operations,” said Farrell. “I do believe the restriction like this is short-sighted. We ask that these farming regulations should support farms, but not destroy the opportunity for every landowner to dabble in small scale agriculture.”
Farrell asked how a property can become a farm where agriculture activities predominate when the owner cannot start selling anything to test the market.
He suggested adding a “farm in transition” category to the regulations where the primarily residential property may be considered a farm for a set time period, allowing the lot owner to experiment until such time that the farm’s success in agriculture was the predominant use of land.
Secondly, Farrell said, the regulations do not allow for viable maple syrup or honey farms because processed agriculture commodities must be derived primarily from the farmland.
“Most maple trees and forage for productive apiaries are usually located well off the farm. This is true in Vermont and all in all the maple-producing states as well as here in Lyme,” he said. “It is not clear that any lot in Lyme where the residence is primary would be able to make maple syrup, and of course we’ve talked about how they can’t sell.”
Third, he said the restriction requiring that farms process its value-added products from raw ingredients primarily from the farm will cause farms to fail or cheat.
“It’s a quaint idea, this idea of processing from crops or agricultural commodities primarily grown on the farm, but it’s parochial, and it will not allow farms to compete and survive,” said Farrell.
He said that part of Fat Stone Farm’s mission is to make food with ingredients primarily derived from the farm, but there have been years with 100% crop failures. He urged the commission to include language that will allow farms to substitute ingredients as economic or crop events dictate.
“We have to be flexible and commercial. What I’m saying is that this regulation needs to accommodate with real life, where the unexpected happens and processing must still go on,” he said. “It needs to enable farmers to make economic choices that are key to survival and allow them to respond to competition.”
Liz Farrell, co-owner of Fat Stone Farm and wife of Bill Farrell, told the commission that the proposed regulations had removed portions of the state’s definition of agriculture, which includes the production of honey, and the production or harvesting of maple syrup and maple sugar.
Farrell said that of the approximately 200 members of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut, only one makes syrup from his own trees.
“It’s not possible in this chopped up, small parcel, piece of Connecticut that we live in and even in Vermont, that you can run a business collecting sap from only your own property and turn into maple syrup,” she said.
She suggested adding language that would allow a Lyme farmer who is leasing multiple lots in Lyme to be seen as a single farm in the zoning code.
Baylee Drown, co-owner of Long Table Farm, said a number of items were missing from the new regulations that had been included in the original draft, including, for example, the ability of a home gardener to sell extra zucchini on a card table by the side of the road.
Drown, who was a member of the original subcommittee, said that for many people the agricultural “entry point” was selling surplus from their gardens, or their extra eggs, needed to remain part of life in Lyme.
She urged the commission to re-include farmstands in the code without requiring a site plan approval or a special permit.
She said it was “onerous” that the proposed regulations on seasonal housing for workers required an annual application and public hearing for a special permit.
Drown also objected to the requirement that worker housing be screened from view.
“[This] did hurt my feelings a little bit and there are a few places where it was mandated that aspects of our farm be screened from view. I think farms are beautiful and I think Lyme is beautiful.”
Ryan Quinn, co-owner of Long Table Farm and husband of Drown, urged the commission to accept the state’s definition of agriculture.
“[That would] allow farms to process their crops as they grow without having to worry about whether or not they fall into agricultural processing or not, because that’s really the only way small farms like us can make it.”
Michael Newburg, of Falls Brook Organic Farm, questioned why the regulations included a 7500 square foot limit on hoop houses.
“I want to point out that 7500 square feet is a fifth of an acre or so. So it’s not something that’s going to grow an enormous amount of food, but also for, for a farmer to actually make a living, growing food through the winter, I think a half acre would be a more reasonable size.”
Mary St. Louis said the farmers needed to have a direct voice in how the regulations are written.
Carol House, a member of Planning and Zoning, said one of the goals of the regulations was to prevent large enterprises that only perform processing from setting up an operation in Lyme.
Earlier in the meeting, Fritz Gahagan, a member of Planning and Zoning, said it was difficult to put checks and balances into place.
“We tried to focus on making sure that anybody that was wanting smaller farms and produce production would be fully permitted, perhaps with some checks, just to make sure that things weren’t happening right up against a residential boundary,” he said. “But it was not something we were trying to prohibit in any way.”
He said the commission tried to write the regulations based on the intensity of the activity and the size of the parcel within neighborhoods.
“So the commission would at least have a look at certain activities when we have a smaller parcel because micro farming is now a reality and micro farming can be done,” he said.
Gahagan said that the commission recognized that farming is an economically fragile activity and would recommend a flexible application fee structure for agriculture and potentially waive “any number of requirements that are more pertinent to commercial activity as a whole and not pertinent to agriculture.”
The public hearing was postponed Monday afternoon but Bernie Gigliotti, commission chair, reinstated it at the beginning of the meeting Monday night.
The hearing will continue at the next Planning and Zoning meeting on Feb. 13.