The West Tisbury zoning board of appeals unanimously approved awarding the special permit the West Tisbury Farmers Market applied for, allowing the market to conduct its operations on the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society fairgrounds instead of at the Grange Hall, after objections from the Vineyard Conservation Society, and then later gaining approval from the West Tisbury conservation commission.
Board chair Lawrence Schubert began with a short history of the Farmers Market, saying that the Farmers Market, founded in 1974, operated at the Grange Hall until 2020. This was when representatives of the market approached the board for permission to change operation locations to the society’s grounds with a special permit, which was allowed at the time because of the high number of COVID cases. The Farmers Market has remained at the society’s grounds for the past two summers, but Schubert said the fact that COVID is not as prevalent now needed to be factored into the decision.
Before considering whether to approve awarding the special permit, one item of concern was whether to refer the issue to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).
“Procedure for applying for special permits has a certain protocol we like to use,” Schubert said. “Most applications don’t trigger a referral to the commission as part of a DRI, development of regional impact, checklist.”
Schubert said the Farmers Market has usually operated under an event permit from the select board, and this is the first time it has applied for what would be considered a “permanent special permit.” He said he would have preferred if the Farmers Market representatives had gone to the select board for an event permit, as has been done in previous years.
Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society alternate trustee Emily Fischer and West Tisbury Farmers Market co-manager Elana Carlson spoke on the market’s behalf. Carlson responded that she talked to West Tisbury building inspector Joseph Tierney and health agent Omar Johnson, but “no one would sign the event permit” because of the uncertainties surrounding the Farmers Market.
“I couldn’t get the signatures I needed to go to the select board, so this seemed like, in our eyes, the only recourse,” Carlson said.
The Farmers Market has been operating at the society’s grounds as an “emergency relief” during the past two summers, but Schubert said he did not view the current situation as falling under the same category.
Zoning board of appeals vice chair Julius Lowe pointed out that there have been many similar types of events of the same scale that have occurred on the society’s fairgrounds, including the annual fair and weddings.
Carlson said the Farmers Market plans to also get an event permit for its activities, but time is limited. In particular, referring the case to the commission would further delay the process.
Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society president Brian Athearn made two points about the grounds and the Farmers Market. The first was that “that building sits empty 300 days out of the year.” The second is how important the Farmers Market is to the livelihood of the more than 40 vendors who participate.
“When you talk to any of the farmers or the vendors at the Farmers Market, up to 40 percent of their income comes from the Farmers Market. Forty percent,” he said. “So, when you talk about time-sensitive, yeah, it’s time-sensitive. Farmers have crops. Farmers have products they’re producing and staff that they need to pay. It is time-sensitive.”
Fischer added that the Farmers Market has been going on in West Tisbury for decades, and the winter markets are already taking place in the society building.
After some further discussion among themselves, the board voted 4-0 not to refer the application to the commission as a DRI. Schubert abstained from voting, citing that as the chair he would be the one sitting in court to explain the decision if it is brought up in the future.
This vote was followed by the discussion on whether the special permit should be awarded to Farmers Market. All of the audience members who spoke were supportive of the market operating at the society’s fairgrounds.
“We’ve got to have a farmers market somewhere, and it seems to me that’s the place to do it,” attendee Allen Whiting said.
“The Farmers Market has been a part of the Ag Society ever since it started,” Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society executive director Lauren Lynch said, adding how exciting it is for her to have “a robust agricultural communtiy” on the Island.
Julie Scott, vice president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, said she was a vendor for seven years at the Farmers Market before becoming a mother. While the market was held at the Grange Hall, the traffic made it difficult for her to participate, but that changed with the more spacious fairgrounds. “It’s just so important to engage young families in agriculture, and have a place that we can gather, and there really aren’t a lot of places like that here,” she said.
These sentiments reflected the correspondence sent to the board, 17 of which supported the Farmers Market operating at the society’s fairgrounds. Only two letters expressed opposition. Oak Bluffs resident Salem Mekuria wrote the market being at Grange Hall was “much friendlier,” while West Tisbury resident Angela Anderson wrote that “the atmosphere is lost in the huge space the Ag Hall provides on its fields.”
After the unanimous approval, Schubert reminded Carlson and Fischer that there is a 20-day appeals period before the special permit can be awarded. Schubert said he was not completely sure how that would work for the opening day of the Farmers Market, to which Carlson said it would not be an issue.
The first Farmers Market is scheduled for June 11.