2017-07-06 / Front Page

Right to Farm Act dies in Senate

House OK’d bill, but session ends without upper chamber voting

House Democrats in Providence battled over a bill that would allow festivals on farms without local zoning approval, but the measure ultimately died with no Senate vote when the legislature’s session ended Saturday.

Rep. Deb Ruggiero, a Democrat who represents Jamestown and Middletown, sided with all 11 Republicans and 11 of her fellow Democrats against the so-called Right to Farm Act. The other 45 Assembly Democrats voted for the bill.

This is the fourth consecutive year the legislation has been introduced. The bill would define secondary agriculture operations, including festivals and weddings, but cities and towns could only regulate the operations, not prohibit them. Only matters of public safety could cancel an event.

The town councilors in Jamestown unanimously approved a resolution last month stating their opposition to the proposal.

In it, they said the town opposes the bill because it will “essentially allow commercial operations unrelated to agriculture and farming on certain qualifying properties without regard to the nuisance or undesirable externalities imposed on abutting and nearby residencies.”

The main proponents of the bill have been lawyers for Alex and Ani, the jewelry giant founded by East Shore Road resident Carolyn Rafaelian. She also owns the 150-acre 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.

The Right to Farm Act, however, would expand the law to include “the display of antique vehicles and equipment, tours, classes, petting, feeding and viewing of animals, hayrides, crop mazes, festivals, weddings and other special events.”

According to Rep. Gregory Costantino, the Lincoln Democrat who sponsored the bill, these secondary operations are a “valuable and viable means of contributing to the preservation of agriculture.”

Ruggiero, who swayed from the Democratic majority, disagreed, saying it was a “power grab.”

“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.”

The state currently has more than 1,200 farms, she said, and Rhode Island law allows them to apply for permits to host weddings. However, local zoning should govern that since not all farms are located in similar districts. “Some are quiet and residential,” she said.

Blake Filippi, the Republican whip from Block Island, mentioned a 90-acre farm just 10 minutes from the State House.

“We could throw one heck of a party there and it wouldn’t be restricted,” he said.

Another member of the GOP, East Greenwich’s Anthony Giarrusso, quipped the state is turning into the “city of Rhode Island.”

“This smells like some hotshot wants to undermine local authorities by coming to us,” he said.

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