By CHEA WATERS EVANS
The farm stand that popped up a couple of years ago at Philo Ridge Farm was exciting enough: a small red shed with an honor-system cash box, fresh veggies, and some frozen chicken and bacon.
Since then, the farm and the farm stand have had quite a makeover.
Visitors to Philo Ridge Farm now shop in a large restored barn to a scene straight out of … well … somewhere far beyond Charlotte.
Inside the market, sheepskin is draped artfully over a display of gift and gourmet snack items; baskets hold $40 tubes of hand lotion. The coffee counter serves up $5 cups of cold brew coffee, lattes, and pastries such as galettes with cheddar and summer squash straight from the farm’s garden. Customers can order egg sandwiches on homemade biscuits, an Israeli breakfast plate that features homemade labneh, and pick up a pint of berries to go with it.
A recent Sunday afternoon lunch crowd included bearded men in creative eyeglasses who could just as easily have been in Brooklyn, alongside couples out for long Sundayroad-bike rides, families with young children, and locals who seemed curious to see what the fuss was all about.
How is this possible in Charlotte?
The town government is notoriously reluctant to grant permits and permission regarding new business development. And, despite grousing about high taxes, not many citizens are eager to welcome commercial enterprises to town.
Public discussions at development hearings often turn to preserving the town’s character. In just the past year or so, several high-profile development projects began with high hopes, then folded before getting out of the gate. Examples include the Mt. Philo Hops Farm, a Maplefields convenience store and gas station proposed for the corner of Route 7 and Ferry Road, a tearoom at the Charlotte Berry Farm and a field of solar panels within sight of Mt. Philo. There are many more.
A new law lends a hand
The Philo Ridge Farm market and café opened thanks in part to state legislation passed on May 20 that went into effect on July 1. Act 143 intends to bolster community farms by allowing them to operate accessory on-farm businesses with reduced municipal oversight.
The farm — formerly the Foote farm on the corner of Mt. Philo Road and Hinesburg Road and across the street from Charlotte Central School — opened July 5.
Stephanie Smith, chief policy enforcement officer with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said Act 143 serves a multitude of purposes. It helps farmers effectively market their products and provide farm-related educational opportunities to the public when they shop or use services at a farm.
Another function of the act, she said, is that it was “meant to bridge the gap between the Agency of Agriculture and what a municipality can regulate.”
Bridging the gap
This gap is causing some confusion. Charlotte Zoning Administrator Aaron Brown said that, as the Philo Ridge Farm accessory on-farm business currently exists, he is working with the state to understand the parameters of the new law and what his responsibilities are as far as enforcing town laws.
“I am still awaiting additional guidance from the state to better understand the full implications for local regulatory processes,” he wrote in an email.
He also explained that, under the guidelines of a 2003 agricultural exemption law, two previous zoning administrators, Joseph Rheaume and Jeannine McCrumb, approved for the Philo Ridge Farm property an animal barn and a year-round market and food-processing facility in February and June of 2016.
Because Act 143 is new, specific guidelines regarding its application have yet to be developed.
In a July 12 memo sent to the Charlotte Zoning Board, Planning Commission, and Selectboard, Brown wrote: “In recent weeks, several Charlotters have inquired about developments at Philo Ridge Farm. … Some people, including me, are concerned that the farm may begin to push the limits of its agricultural exemption from local permitting. At this point, however, I do not have enough evidence to issue a notice of alleged violation for any activity there.”
Brown said he has requested figures from Philo Ridge Farm that break down which products for sale qualify as being from the farm, as required by Act 143. “The figures in the sales report will determine if any additional regulatory action, such as a conditional use review, is required,” he wrote in an email.
Municipal guidance about the law, which should be available in the fall, is currently in development by the Agency of Agriculture, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, and the Vermont Planners Association, according to Brown.
Inspiration and innovation
Philo Ridge farm is owned by Charlotters Diana McCargo and Peter Swift, who bought the property in 2012 with the intention to continue a longstanding farm legacy.
Their daughter, Meriwether Hardie, is the family’s spokeswoman for the project as well as the chief of staff for Bio-Logical Capital, a land investment, development, revitalization and conservation company located in Denver that works with Philo Ridge Farm on farm planning, human resources and financial management.
Hardie said the farm and market is “easily meeting and surpassing” the new law’s sales requirement.
She also said the law is inspirational to the staff at Philo Ridge.
“The new law allows us to not only showcase products from our farm, but also products from nearby farms and partners. We also feel that the 50 percent sales requirement inspires on-farm resourcefulness and innovation,” Hardie said. “When you are truly using ingredients from the farm that change on a daily basis, the result is constant and ever-changing creativity — which benefits both our kitchen team as well as our guests.”
To avoid future confusion, Brown said he is working to create guidelines and parameters for application of the new law in Charlotte.
‘Could create confusion’
Smith, at the Agriculture Agency, said the intent of the law as written is to help farmers develop alternative streams of revenue and sustain farms over generations.
Brown agreed that this is well-intentioned and clear. But, he added, he’s “not sure legislators adequately considered how the law could create confusion (at best) or haphazard development (at worst)” with the law’s second goal, which is to increase consistency statewide with municipal regulation and permitting.
Whatever the future brings, Hardie believes Philo Ridge Farm is in step with Act 143’s original intention: “It is our hope that this legislation creates more opportunity for the current and future generations of farmers and farm entrepreneurs in how they attract consumers to their property to support their work. [It] is a big win for keeping Vermont in agriculture and we are excited to be part of this new opportunity as Vermont transitions to a more diversified agriculture economy.”
What is Act 143?
Act 143 was passed in May by the Vermont Legislature and went into effect July 1. It allows farmers to open accessory on-farm businesses with less municipal regulation than previously required.
The law specifies that “the storage, preparation, processing and sale of qualifying products, provided that more than 50 percent of the total annual sales are from qualifying products that are principally produced on the farm at which the business is located.”
It also allows “educational, recreational, or social events that feature agricultural practices or qualifying products, or both” (such as tours, tastings, meals featuring qualifying products, classes).”
It also establishes guidelines for a pilot program regarding all aspects of growing and selling hemp and hemp products.
Prior to the passage of the new law, farms were already exempt from most municipal land-use, zoning and such regulatory oversight regarding agriculture-related farm activity.
The added bonus of Act 143 is that farmers are able to open on-premises businesses as long as 51 percent of the profits come from farm-related items. Though municipal governments still have the right to perform site-plan review and performance standard review, their oversight is limited.