2017-05-18 / News

Town opposes bill that would expand farm use to weddings, concerts

BY TIM RIEL

The town councilors are expected to meet in special session Monday to formally oppose a proposed House bill in the state legislature that would “essentially devastate” municipal zoning control of farms.

Beavertail residents Don Wineberg and David Booth broached the issue at Monday night’s regular council meeting. Because state lawmakers already have begun hearing testimony in committee, the councilors decided they couldn’t wait until their next regularly scheduled meeting, which isn’t until June 19 because of the financial town meeting.

“Once it gets onto the floor of the house, anything can happen at 2 in the morning,” said Wineberg, an attorney with experience as legislative counsel in the Rhode Island Senate.

House bill 6172, dubbed the Right to Farm Act, was introduced three weeks ago by Democratic Lincoln Rep. Gregory Costantino without any co-sponsors. If passed, the law would define secondary agriculture operations, including carnivals, concerts and restaurants. Moreover, the bill would allow towns to regulate the operations but not prohibit them. Only matters of public safety, with sign-offs by both the police and fire chiefs, could cancel an event.

“I have a place on Highland Drive overlooking Mackerel Cove that would be a wonderful spot for a wedding,” Booth said. “All I have to do is plant a few strawberry bushes.”

According to Wineberg, who testified at the committee hearing last week, lawyers for Alex and Ani, the jewelry giant founded by East Shore Road homeowner Carolyn Rafaelian, are pushing for the bill’s passage. Rafaelian also owns Sakonnet Vineyard, a Little Compton farm that would benefit from the proposal.

Current state law does not allow municipal zoning to restrict any commercial enterprise pertaining to horticulture, viticulture, viniculture, floriculture, forestry, horse stables, dairy or aquaculture. Also, farms are allowed to raise livestock, poultry, bees and animals that produce fur.

Costantino’s bill, however, would expand the law to include “the display of antique vehicles and equipment, retail sales, tours, classes, petting, feeding and viewing of animals, hayrides, crop mazes, festivals, weddings and other special events.” According to Costantino, these secondary operations are a “valuable and viable means of contributing to the preservation of agriculture.”

A similar bill has been introduced four years in row. Simultaneously during the 2015 effort, Jamestown Vineyards, a winery on Beavertail Road, was appealing a zoning decision that banned the sale of alcohol at the farm, which is located in a rural residential zone. Both the bill and appeal failed; the proposed legislation never left committee.

Jamestown Rep. Deb Ruggiero said she has been against this bill from the get-go, saying it’s “very problematic.”

“The issue here is not farmers selling more fruits or vegetables,” she said. “This is not about farmers. It’s about developers trying to create commercial enterprises. Let’s call it what it is.”

Ruggiero called it a “power grab.” The state currently has more than 1,200 farms, she said, and Rhode Island law allows them to apply for permits to host weddings and concerts. However, local zoning should govern that, she added, since not all farms are located in similar districts.

“Some are quiet and residential, but perhaps there is a more active farm in Portsmouth or Middletown where it’s OK to have a two-day concert,” she said. “That must be determined by each city and town.”

“We have a very fair, robust and supporting zoning system for agriculture,” Wineberg said. “Farms in Rhode Island are doing very well. They’re growing in number and they’re growing in size. We don’t need to take towns out of the equation. Towns should reserve the right to regulate land within their borders.”

Councilman Gene Mihaly said it was “crystal clear” the town should oppose this bill.

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