Stonington PZC comments on proposed zone to help historical farms survive

Planning and Zoning Commission members offered some suggestions Tuesday night to a local group that would like to allow an expanded list of agricultural-related uses in certain zones in an effort to preserve working farms.

The commission’s comments came during an informal workshop with representatives of Stone Acres LLC, a group of about a dozen residents who have purchased the historical Stone Acres Farm on North Main Street.

Attorney William Sweeney and the group’s design team laid out conceptual plans for the property and explained their proposal to create a floating zone called the Agricultural Heritage District. The district would be a tool for farms that have been in operation for 80 years or more and are 35 acres or larger. The criteria would apply to about 20 farms in town.

Commission Chairman David Rathbun suggested that Stone Acres representatives now meet with owners of affected farms before going any further with the plan.
“It would help to get their input and see how it will affect them,” said Rathbun, whose farm also would be eligible for the program.

Rathbun added Wednesday that if Stone Acres files a formal application, he would participate in the commission’s discussion but not vote on the application.
Commission member Curtis Lynch commended Stone Acres on Tuesday night for a “great presentation and a wonderful design.”

“We want to drive by and see that it looks exactly the way it does now,” he said, after a Stone Acres designer explained that any new buildings would not be seen from the street.
If it decides to move forward with the proposal, Stone Acres would need to formally apply for a floating zone and also obtain master plan and site plan approval, all of which require public hearings.

On Tuesday night, commission member Shaun Mastroianni raised some concerns about the proposal, saying the number and kinds of uses being proposed by Stone Acres are too many. He especially objected to a brewery on the site.

“I look at Stone Acres and see how beautiful it is and I don’t want to see it changed. I look at this and it could become a city,” he said.

Some of the uses being contemplated under the special zone are artisan food production such cheese making, milling, meats and butchering, as well as flower arranging, woodworking, baking and brewing using products produced on the farm.

Other suggested uses include cafes, bed and breakfast operations, farms stores and stands, weddings and other events, farm-to-table operations and educational tours.

But Sweeney pointed out that no commercial or industrial primary uses are being proposed. He said the proposed zone change would allow farms to create new revenue sources “so they can stay a farm, which is what this is all about.”

He said distilleries and breweries are becoming increasingly popular uses on farms, as they use grain produced there and then use the waste on site.

Sweeney said other historical farms are in a similar predicament of not being economically viable and subject to conversion to residential subdivisions, which he said hurts the character of the town. He said the additional uses will give the farms the flexibility they need to survive.

“This has the potential to help a lot of farms,” he said.

Commission member Frances Hoffman questioned Sweeney about requiring farms to be in operation for at least 80 years. Photos, tax records and testimony could be used as proof of a farm’s age.

Sweeney said the proposal is aimed at assisting the town’s historical farms and is not designed to create a situation where someone can buy some residentially zoned land, plow it under, call it a farm and take advantage of all the new uses.

By Joe Wojtas, The Day staff writer

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