Working Earth can keep working

Zoning board upholds agricultural use in the residential neighborhood.

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A Jan. 26 aerial photo of the property. Neighboring property owners are pushing back against a ruling that a landscaping company is agricultural.

The Oak Bluffs zoning board has unanimously upheld a decision by the town’s building inspector, Tom Perry, that allows Working Earth to continue operating its nursery on a 55-acre property owned by Peter Goodale off Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road.

The zoning board put conditions on its vote that set the Working Earth’s hours of operation from 8 am to 7 pm, limits equipment that can be stored on the property overnight to vehicles used for growing and raising products, allows storage of materials only related to the agricultural use, requires trucks that have back-up beepers to install mitigating white noise systems, requires installation of hoop-style greenhouses, and makes the property subject to inspection by the building inspector.

The decision stems from two previous public hearings on a request by abutters and those who live nearby, seeking the reversal of Perry’s decision that Working Earth is an agricultural use of the property. Perry allowed Working Earth to use the site, but issued a cease-and-desist order for landscapers who were using the site for staging.

At the March 17 ZBA meeting, board members heard some final comments on both sides of the issue. The Times requested a copy of the Zoom the day after the meeting, but didn’t receive it until late Wednesday, March 23.

A request for ZBA member Andrea Rogers to recuse herself from the vote was declined by Rogers. “I’m not recusing myself. I don’t have to. Only a board member can say they want to recuse themselves,” she said.

When someone off-camera said the public can request that a board member remove themselves from the vote, Rogers responded, “They can ask, but I can choose.”

Rogers later clarified that she is a gardener who sells some products at farmers’ markets, which is not a conflict.

Ahead of the vote, Ben Scott, one of the neighbors who sought the appeal, said the issue is about noise in a residential neighborhood. He said the neighbors raised questions about whether it’s truly an agricultural use of the property.

“That line is crossed when work is done on processing, storing, gathering materials such as the topsoil, the mulch, bricks and fieldstone, bluestone, etc., and then delivering it to their client’s homes in support of their principal use as a landscaping business,” Scott said. “This usage does not meet the narrow definition of agriculture under Massachusetts General Law … I want to reiterate we do not have objections to Working Earth creating a nursery, or growing native plants or trees, or using it in any agricultural way, which is permitted — despite the fact that there was no evidence of these activities when the building official made his determination that we seek to reverse tonight.”

Jonathan Sweet also spoke out on behalf of the neighborhood. “These abutters are year-round residents. They’re not off-Island, Airbnb, NIMBY people. These are people with families who live in a residential neighborhood, and they want farmers and people who operate nurseries to go ahead and do so,” he said. “What they don’t want is a landscaping business using that exemption as a way to pigeonhole to operate a landscaping staging operation and fit it into the agricultural exemption.”

Dan Williams, a direct abutter to the property, said noise has been an issue. “I have not heard a lot of noise since January,” he told the board. “Prior to January it was sunup to sundown, sometimes before sunup. It sounded like a commercial site.”

Patty Wilson, another neighbor, wondered who would police the site. “I don’t want to spend my summer calling the building inspector saying, I’m hearing it again, I’m hearing it again,” she said.

Goodale made a brief comment saying there’s nothing in state law that requires the entire property be used for agricultural purposes.

Jude Villa, owner of Working Earth, also defended her operation. She insisted her equipment doesn’t make the kind of noises that have been described by abutters and neighbors. “I feel like I’ve been openly targeted,” she said.

The zoning board reported it received nine letters in support of Villa, many of them from her customers. It received only one written comment in support of overturning Perry’s decision.

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