Field-to-table dinner gives Edgartown officials heartburn

The Morning Glory farm stand dressed up for the season last fall. — Photo by Susan Safford

A field-to-table supper at Morning Glory Farm on Saturday evening promises to delight local foodies with a menu of farm fresh produce, harvested that day, and served out in the fields where it was grown.

But the event has raised concerns from the Edgartown health and zoning inspectors, and irritated selectmen who issue the licenses and permits under which such activities are permitted.

On Monday, Edgartown selectmen expressed irritation that they were taking up a written request, which farm owner Jim Athearn submitted for approval of a one-day beer and wine license, only five days before the event. Mr. Athearn did not attend the selectmen’s meeting.

“It has been advertised, and tickets have already been sold,” selectman Margaret Serpa said. “If I’m going to approve this, it’s going to be the last one. They went to the commission (Martha’s Vineyard Commission) and they didn’t want to have a hearing. I don’t appreciate being put in the position of having to approve something because it’s this far along.”

Selectman Michael Donaroma, a former chairman of the MVC, said that Mr. Athearn, who also served on the regional permitting body, is well aware of the rules.

“This should come as no surprise to Mr. Athearn,” Mr. Donaroma said. “He’s been on boards and commissions making these rules and regulations for many years.”

The board unanimously approved the one-day alcohol license, subject to approval of the zoning and health inspectors.

Growing trend

Local farms have become a trendy venue for food activists like JJ Gonson, a Cambridge chef who organizes one night culinary events with a group of so-called “gypsy cooks.” She is working with Morning Glory Farm to stage Saturday’s $125 a plate event.

The concept involves a spontaneous menu developed just before the dinner, to take advantage of foods that are ripe, ready, and available.

“Spontaneity is part of the experience,” Mr. Athearn said in a telephone call Tuesday. “You don’t plan too far ahead. You look around and see what’s ripe.”

But the field-to-table dining concept is at odds with town zoning and food service health regulations.

Town officials question whether bringing in a professional chef to serve a sit-down meal fits under the permitted use of the land as a retail farm stand.

“He’s getting dangerously close to a restaurant,” Edgartown zoning inspector Lenny Jason Jr. told The Times.

Mr. Jason said he has advised the dinner organizers that they can only serve food that is grown or sold from the farm stand. “If he wants to sell his own produce, he can do it,” he said.

Mr. Jason said any other use of the property would require returning to the MVC, which approved a 2,390-square-foot expansion of the farm stand as a development of regional impact in January 2010.

Table talk

Earlier this year, Mr. Athearn did return to the MVC, where he once sat as an elected, and then appointed, commissioner. He sought clarification of the MVC decision approving his expansion after town officials questioned several events held at the farm stand during the winter and spring months, including fundraising dinners and a wedding.

In a letter to the commission, Mr. Athearn asked that his permits be modified to allow events for organizations other than Morning Glory Farm for 50 to 125 people, weddings with no more than 175 guests, four farm festivals per year, and winter hours of operation.

“I expected them to call the changes insignificant, and go ahead and write them in,” Mr. Athearn told The Times.

Instead, the commissioners voted that the activities are a significant change that requires a public hearing and a formal vote.

“So I said, ‘never mind,'” Mr. Athearn said.

Based on that development, several town officials thought there would be no more events like the dinner planned Saturday.

Menu choices

Mr. Athearn said the dinner falls well within the scope of his farm stand. State and federal law grants farms an exemption from most local zoning laws for farm related activity. For example, Mr. Athearn was able to erect a wind turbine without going to any local or regional regulatory boards.

“This shouldn’t be out of bounds by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. Athearn said. “I don’t know what they’re in a huff about. It’s new to us to have a dinner of this sort, but it’s a standard thing for farms to do around the Island, around the Commonwealth, and the country. It’s one way to have the public come and enjoy your farm.”

Edgartown health inspector Matt Poole said that regulations governing farm stands are tricky.

“It’s not a function hall, it’s not a place of assembly, as would be for a sit-down food service,” Mr. Poole said. “It’s not equipped with restrooms, things like that. There were two or three events in late winter and spring. They were essentially functioning kind of like an Ag Hall, but it wasn’t built in compliance with those codes. My concern in the spring was they were a permitted food service, but they were allowing others to come in and operate in their establishment.”

Mr. Poole said he is confident that with more communication and planning, the organizers can satisfy regulatory requirements of the board of health.