On Monday, Chilmark’s planning board heard from local farmers about their proposal to amend zoning bylaws in the town to clarify what kinds of activities farms are allowed to host on-location.
The planning board took no official action on the matter during its meeting, but will revisit the topic in future meetings. Approaches discussed on Monday included forming a working group to come up with a solution.
In an agricultural-residential district, current Chilmark bylaws allow agricultural uses, as well as work that is directly or indirectly related. Farmers want a more specific understanding of that permitted work, saying that farming has evolved to include more public events that will help their businesses.
The bylaw change was first pitched to the planning board in the summer, by a coalition of eight Chilmark farms.
In July, the farms sent the planning board a letter requesting clarification of town zoning bylaws, particularly regarding on-location farm events. According to the letter, some events had been considered commercial due to Chilmark’s zoning bylaws, and there was a question of whether they were allowed on farms or not.
“[W]e…are reaching out — to start a conversation about how we can…further promote farm businesses by clarifying and defining processes so that the town and the farms can operate successfully within the guidelines set forth,” the letter reads.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is the notion that farming is simply about buying and selling vegetables or meat,” stated the letter. “For small farms to remain viable, we must think outside the box.
“For generations, farms have created ways to capture a more significant proportion of the retail dollar from their farm products through examples such as tours, tastings, educational classes, demonstrations, farm-to-table dinners, pop-up markets, value-added products, and community harvest celebrations.”
In November, Chilmark’s planning board asked the town select board to begin the public hearing stage of the zoning bylaw amendment process.
“In addition to any use or practice allowed as of right under applicable law,” reads the proposed amendment language sent to the select board, “agriculture or an agricultural use shall include but not be limited to related tours, tastings, farm meals, Pick Your Own operations, seasonal festivals, classes, workshops, and field trips.”
However, the select board declined to begin the public hearing process. Members felt that the language lacked important definitions, and could be too permissible towards different farm activities.
The farms also initially intended to have a warrant article on the matter voted on in April’s town meeting.
This Monday, planning board chair Richard Osnoss said that the select board and town counsel wanted the planning board to strengthen the proposal’s definitions and parameters, before a proposal could reach town meeting.
“The planning board could come up with something more definitive, go to the select board, and say ‘This is sufficient enough for public hearings,” Osnoss said on Monday.
The planning board and farmers discussed potential approaches, including forming a committee or group, creating a pilot program to test out certain events at farms, and having Chilmark’s building and zoning inspector help farms plan events for the current season.
Osnoss said that the planning board had attempted to form a committee, but didn’t get enough commitments. Still, he said it could eventually happen.
“Typically, when the planning board is working on a zoning bylaw, we create a subcommittee of about four members. We tried to do that, and we were unable to get a commitment from four people on our board,” Osnoss said. “There seemed to be a reaction from the select board that they’re willing to participate with us in a broader committee to help [get] through this, including some planning board members that might be interested, a select board member or members that might be interested, as well as members of the public,” Osnoss said.
Amy Weinberg of Beetlebung Farm, part of the farm coalition, shared changes made to the farms’ proposal since the select board declined to move forward. The word “festival” has been removed, and “(not more than three per month)” has been added after “farm meals.”
“We appreciate and hear, from the town in particular, the need for guardrails and limitations,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg also stated on Monday that there might be a way to work within the existing bylaw.
“I actually don’t think what we’re trying to do is really different from what’s already happening, and we want to be able to move forward knowing that we are above board, and actually doing it in a way that’s more consistent with our values,” Weinberg said.
One key point for farmers, said Weinberg, is that they do not see themselves as infringing upon the roles of restaurants. “We could certainly talk at length about how we think what we’re doing is so very, very different from a restaurant, and how not one of our eight farms have any intention, now or in the future, of ever wanting to be in the restaurant business,” Weinberg said.
Multiple farmers, Weinberg included, hoped to engage the public as a next step. Weinberg said that a small working group or subcommittee could include one or two planning board members, one or two farmers, and possibly a select board member and unaffiliated Chilmark voter.
“We do really look forward to the creation of a working group…really what we want to do is get to the public,” said Weinberg.
The planning board’s Hugh Weisman agreed that public input would be valuable, whether in a public hearing or informational groups.
Multiple farmers shared concerns about planning their events for the season, given uncertainty around what is currently permitted.
“I’m afraid that if we go into another season not being able to know what we can do and what we can’t do, it’s going to be detrimental to me,” said Rebecca Miller of North Tabor Farm, part of the coalition. “And I feel — for the first time in 30 years of farming here — last year I lived in the shadows. I did things by finding another way.”
Miller also told the board that she wanted to see a zoning bylaw amendment voted upon at town meeting. “I’m asking if there is something that we can do, working together, so that we can still put this on for the spring meeting.”
Osnoss was receptive to Miller’s concerns, but said that the board’s process would take time. “We’re slow, and it doesn’t always feel good, but we want to help,” he said.
Farmer Rebecca Gilbert also wondered whether an arrangement might be made for the next season, with help from the building and zoning inspector.
“I wonder if there is a possibility to have some kind of guidelines that we’ve worked out together, that would help the building and zoning inspector and help us plan for the current season, but would not go as far as being entrenched in law.”
Osnoss suggested continuing the discussion at future meetings. He also suggested contacting Bill Veno and Adam Turner of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, in order to make progress toward community interaction.