Act 143 raises farming questions

Staff Reporter

The Charlotte Selectboard spent the majority of its meeting Monday night listening to an Act 143 presentation and discussing some of the local issues related to the legislation.

Act 143 is intended to promote the Vermont farm economy and to “increase the consistency across the State of municipal regulation and permitting of accessory activity that supports those farms,” the legislation reads. The act went into effect on July 1, 2018.

Zoning administrator Aaron Brown made the presentation to the selectboard because of confusion he sees in the act. He wants the selectboard’s guidance about how they would like to deal with it.

One example Brown cited about farm-event accessory businesses was a farm in a neighborhood that becomes a concert or wedding venue and serves food produced on the farm.

“What if I were to host theater at my farm and I sold you a ticket and said that $8 of each $10 ticket is for the food that I raised and $2 is to support the actors? Brown asked. “Am I exempt as a theater facility that happens to be on a farm? The act prohibits towns from zoning against accessory on-farm businesses, but the (Vermont Agency of Agriculture) has said they are going to defer to towns to determine what are qualifying products, events, and accessory uses.”

Town Administrator Dean Bloch said that the questions before both the selectboard and the planning commission are related to whether the town wants to regulate those accessory agricultural uses, and if so, how.

The goal of Act 143 is to increase the vitality of Vermont farms by allowing accessory farm businesses. One type of accessory farm business that is allowed under the act is a side business that prepares, stores, or sells products from a farm. But 50 percent of annual sales from the accessory business is required to come from products that are produced on the farm.

So, a farm can start an accessory business serving meals as long as half of the restaurant’s annual income is from food that is raised or grown on the farm.

Another type of accessory farm business that is now allowed by Act 143 are events. These can be educational, recreational, or social events. Or the events can be “farm stays” (spending the night on the farm). These events are permitted if they “feature” agricultural products that are produced on the farm.

The statute allows regulation by site plan review and performance standards, said Bloch.

Selectboard member Carrie Spear asked what performance standards are, and Brown started his presentation by explaining that performance standards are radioactive materials, noxious gases, smoke, dust. “

For example, a farm operating a brewery might produce a lot of steam that might bother neighbors, Bloch said.

“Typically I’m not too concerned about farms having those issues,” Spear said.

Brown agreed with selectboard member Frank Tenney that noise was the more common concern.

A site plan review would cover such things as parking, pedestrian access, signs and the physical layout of the site.

Brown said that, because of the way that Act 143 is written, it is “questionable” whether the act improves the consistency of how accessory farm activities are regulated.

In addition to accessory farm activities, the act also addresses on-farm events, hemp and pesticides. Brown’s presentation did not deal with hemp or pesticides because he said he hasn’t studied that part of the law and he has not had many questions about those issues.

Brown is meeting with officials from Shelburne and Hinesburg to talk about the law and where each community sees itself going.

“If I had to guess, I’d think that Shelburne is going to take a more restricted view and that Hinesburg might be more lenient,” Brown said.

He added that he did not want to be in the position of defining what appropriate accessory farm businesses are and wanted to know how the Charlotte officials want to proceed.

After Brown’s presentation, the floor was opened to public comment and Bud Shriner, a vegetable gardener and beekeeper, said that he thought that Act 143 has great intention, but wanted to know where farm stays and events fit into the requirement for 50 percent produced on the farm.

Brown said it wasn’t clear to him, but “the events just have to feature the qualifying practices or crops, and that part of the legislation, to my read, doesn’t have the 50 percent requirement.”

It does mean that a farm can’t just open a bed and breakfast that does not serve any products from the farm, Brown said.

“My only concern is that the intention of the law has kind of been flipped on its head, and people could do commercial operations,” Shriner said.

Brown replied that someone from elsewhere in Vermont had contacted him and that in that town they have a hay farm that “has essentially turned into a wedding venue.”

Selectboard member Fritz Tegatz said that the statutes need to be amended so that the events are subordinate to the farm activities.

Grant McCargo said that he was there to represent Philo Ridge Farm and that he hopes Act 143 makes it even easier for future farmers.

“We are a farm, so our goal is to keep producing more and more,” he said.

McCargo went on to say that 75 percent of his income came from qualified products for the month of December and for their year-end goals they “are way above that number.”

He said that making money just by selling a carrot is tough, but if they can put the carrot in a salad and sell it for $8.50 a pound “that’s much more attractive.”

McCargo said he was fine with how farm events are regulated now.

“When we do events now, it’s all about the farm,” he said.

Philo Ridge recently had a group of cattle farmers, and it was an all-day work session in the barn.

Tegatz said that he thought that what Philo Ridge or any other agricultural venture is going to “come up against” is performance standards, such as parking or noise.

Tenney said the town might want to look at such things as traffic, signs, or lights.

“I’m not saying we have any say over it, but just to look at to see if it could be regulated,” he said.

Selectboard member Matthew Krasnow said he wanted to hear more about how other towns are dealing with Act 143 and get more feedback at the state level. He proposed another meeting to focus on Act 143.

Krasnow said there have been conversations between Brown and individual selectboard members and private citizens who’ve come into Town Hall for clarification, but now he’d like the selectboard to schedule another night of public discussion about whether or not, and to what degree, citizens want to see local zoning bylaws developed. He also wants the planning commission to see how the public will weigh in and to have a clearly open process.

Well over half of the audience left the meeting when the Act 143 discussion ended.

Tegatz and Green Mountain Power

As the selectboard examined the minutes from the Jan. 28 meeting and discussed changes, Tegatz said that he wanted to clarify that no one from Green Mountain Power actually used the words “sue us,” regarding net metering, which Tegatz said at that meeting and as was reported in the Jan. 31 issue of The Citizen.

In conversation after Monday’s meeting, he said that Green Mountain Power has said that in a year they will no longer pay him for any excess electricity that his personal solar power system produces. When he installed the system, it was his understanding that they would pay for excess electricity in perpetuity. But regulations changed at the state and federal level, and the power company can only pay him for 10 years. This year is the tenth year.

Tegatz introduced the issue at that meeting because much of the meeting focused on a town plan to meet the requirements of Act 174. Act 174 mandates that 90 percent of the power used in Vermont will come from renewable energy by 2050.

Tegatz said that people and the town are going to make investments based upon its energy plan. He said feels it’s important to remember that the utility company is not bound by this plan.

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