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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Selectmen Review "Right-To Farm" Bylaw

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Williamstown - Agriculture found a spotlight during an April 10 Selectmen's meeting, as Selectmen considered whether to recommend passage of two farm-focused town meeting warrant articles.

After considerable discussion, Selectmen voted against recommending that town voters approve Article 42, a "right to farm" bylaw submitted by the town Planning Board.

Selectmen raised questions about much of the bylaw's wording, which states that "farming shall encompass activities including but not limited to, the following: operation and transportation of slow-moving farm equipment over roads within the town, control of pests, including but not limited to, insects, weeds, predators, and disease organism of plants and animals; application of manure, fertilizers and pesticides,..." and additional criteria.

The bylaw contains a "declaration" that states that agricultural activities may occur on holidays, weekdays, weekends, during daytime and nighttime hours, and also states that noises, odors, dust, and fumes produced as a result of normal farming practices is also permitted.

Most of those protections already exist through state or local laws.

Personal Use Chickens

Selectmen became increasingly concerned about the bylaw after Town Manager Peter Fohlin told them that currently, most agricultural pursuits are already allowed within the town "from border to border."

During an April 11 telephone interview, Town Director of Inspection Services Michael Card confirmed Fohlin's information. Card said that commercial farming is permitted on properties made up of five or more acres in any part of town, and people may keep animals and pets for personal use and pleasure on any property that is less than five acres.

He cited a recent example of a Latham Street resident who has acquired several chickens and has said that the eggs produced by the chickens are for personal use. Since the eggs or any other chicken product will not be sold, the individual may maintain the chickens on the property, Card said.

Currently, the town does not prohibit horses, goats, or other animals from any part of town. Bee hives is an example of a use that could occur anywhere, he said.

"It's a loophole big enough to drive through," Card said.

Concrete Does Not Stink

During the Selectmen's meeting, Selectman Philip Guy and Selectman David Rempell expressed surprise that the existing municipal situation permits farm-type activities throughout the town.

Fohlin explained that currently, if one neighbor were to call town officials and complain about another neighbor's keeping pigs or bees and hives on a residential property, the likely response would be that there is no law to prevent the action. If the proposed bylaw were to pass, the response would change to state that the endeavor is "protected," Fohlin said.

Fohlin noted that there may be a bit of conflict within the town, with some residents seeking the rural atmosphere that agricultural pursuits often produce but wanting to avoid agricultural components such as manure aromas and tractor noises. There are those who claim to support farming but also believe that "tractors shouldn't make noise and pigs shouldn't stink," he said. In the summer, many people complain about certain farm odors and other farm-generated conditions.

"But we all want to drive by the farm and gaze at the cows," he said. "You can't have one without the other. I can tell you that concrete doesn't stink."

Fohlin stressed that he was not advocating that Selectmen choose a particular action about the bylaw but was trying to explain what is already in place in the town, and the situations that have cropped up.

State Department of Agricultural Resources officials have been very encouraging about right-to-farm bylaws as well as the establishment of municipal agriculture commissions.

State Supports "Right-To Farm"

A communication published as part of the MDAR September/October 2003 Farm and Market Report written by MDAR Commissioner Douglas Gillespie states: "Local 'right-to-farm' bylaws are the logical next step to codify normal farming practices as acceptable in each community. These need to be carefully written so as to preserve existing agriculture, and potential new types of farming operations. Bylaws must be reasonable, and allow for changing management techniques, and respect reasonable rights of community residents while allowing commercial agriculture to operate as it must to remain in the town."

MDAR officials subsequently developed a "model bylaw" that could be used as a guide for crafting local right-to-farm bylaws.

The communication set a 2004 goal of 10 new right-to-farm bylaws in the state and set a 2005 goal for 20 such bylaws.

Goal Met

MDAR Assistant Commissioner Kent Lage said during an April 11 telephone interview that most municipal right-to-farm bylaws serve to affirm the state right-to-farm bylaws that are in already place.

Lage said that a significant number of state residents, and in some cases, municipal officials, are not aware of the state's bylaws supporting and protecting farming. Most people are not engaged on a day-to-day basis with farming or agriculture matters, and are not well informed about agricultural issues, he said.

About 30 state communities have passed right-to-farm bylaws and about 52 communities have approved forming municipal agriculture commissions, Lage said.

Agriculture commissions allow farmers within a community to have a voice, Lage said.

Municipal planning, zoning, and other boards or commissions routinely make decisions that can impact farmers and agriculture; establishing agriculture commissions can offer a resource to other municipal boards, town citizens, and other farmers.

Town Meeting Warrant Article 43

Town residents Averill Cook and Kim Wells are the forces behind Article 43, which seeks voter approval to form a town agriculture commission.

Speaking on April 11, Cook stressed that Articles 42 and 43 are separate entities, and should be considered as such.

An agriculture commission would not be an "enforcement" body nor would the commission have any legislative or regulatory powers as proposed, Cook said. The goal is to establish a formal commission that would offer guidance and assistance to farmers, other town boards, and could provide information and education about farm and agriculture issues.

The proposal states "The Commission's duties shall include but will not be limited to the following: serve as facilitators for encouraging the pursuit of agriculture in Williamstown, promote agriculture-based economic opportunities in Town, act as mediators, advocates, educators, and negotiators on farming issues, work for the preservation of agricultural lands, advise the Town Meeting, Board of selectmen, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation Commission, Board of Health, Historical Commission, Board of Assessors, or any other appropriate Town Boards, on issues involving agriculture, and shall pursue all initiatives appropriate to creating a sustainable agricultural community."

If approved and established, a commission would host five Selectmen-appointed members, who would serve specific terms. Three of those appointed to an agriculture commission must be"substantially engaged in the pursuit of agriculture," according to the proposal.

Selectmen unanimously voted to recommend that voters approve establishing a town agriculture commission.

Additional information about the state's agricultural laws and regulations and programs associated with state agriculture is available at a www.mass.gov/agr web site.

According to information provided by the New England Agricultural Statistics 2004 and the 2002 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the state ranks first among the New England states for direct sales of agriculture products to consumers. The state's agricultural exports total about $167 million and support about 3,000 jobs.

FY 2007 Sewer, Water, Transfer Station Fees

In other matters, Selectmen approved a Fiscal Year 2007 sewer rate of $4.47 per 100 cubic feet and a FY 07 water rate of $2.98 per 100 cubic feet.

Transfer station fees were also approved. Large bags for trash disposal will see a price hike from $2 per bag to $2.50 per bag, while small bag costs will increase from $1 per bag to $1.25 per bag. Sticker costs are up; the price of a 12-month sticker rose from $65 to $75, "second vehicle" sticker costs are up from $2 to $5, and those who purchase transfer station stickers on a monthly basis will see price hike of $2, from $6 to $8.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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