WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board has begun the process of studying bylaw changes that potentially could make farms more financially viable in the town.
At its April 9 meeting, the board began discussing a report on agricultural land use prepared for the town by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
Among its recommendations: that the town look at zoning changes that would allow farms to add "agriculturally-related accessory uses."
"The agricultural economy ... is shrinking as costs of production rise and revenues from sales fall, often resulting in the loss of farms," the report reads. "Such trends pose a challenge to Williamstown's rural character."
One way to combat those trends is to allow farms to pursue revenue streams, the report argues. Specifically, it identifies agri-tourism, value-added production, accessory farm stores and methane digesters as prospective money-makers for the town's farms.
"Following town meeting, this could be a project for the board to dive into over the summer," town planner and Community Development Director Andrew Groff told the planners.
Groff and the report explained that because the commonwealth's definition of agricultural does not include some of the activities recommended by the BRPC, businesses looking to pursue them face uncertainty.
"Is a methane digester possible [under the state's definition]?" Groff asked rhetorically. "Likely it is, but that's a judgment call staff has to make. It puts the farmer at risk because, let's say there's an aggrieved party. … With a staff ruling, they have eight years to appeal the decision in court.
"That gives a level of uncertainty."
Methane digesters take organic materials (including animal waste) and process it by anaerobic digestion to produce methane gas that can be used to produce heat or electricity either onsite or off-site.
The BRPC report includes model language that the town could add to Section 70-7.2 of the bylaw.
The model bylaw would require a special permit to allow the town's Zoning Board of Appeals to "attach … conditions, which it feels are necessary to protect nearby properties, the intent of this bylaw, and/or the general public welfare."
In addition, the model bylaw would require a traffic impact study for regional digesters that would accept waste from other sources. And there other restrictions, including setbacks and compliance with local, state and federal codes and regulations.
The BRPC analysis also recommended that the town look at a bylaw modifications that create more opportunity for agricultural tourism — like weddings, short term stays and small concerts — and farm stores.
"The agritourism piece is a broad, expansive thing," Groff said, recommending that the board members study the draft language in anticipation of further discussion starting this summer. "It includes increasing the availability of the farmstand provision in state law.
"For example, the Green River Farm store was highly restricted in seasonality, and what they could sell because of the state provision. … That's one of the reasons the store was only open for a certain number of months in the year. Removing that restriction would allow them to stay open for a longer period or diversify their offerings."
Farming is just one topic on the planners' potential agenda for its 2019-20 cycle.
Another topic that has been discussed by the board over the last couple of years could see movement after Alex Carlisle presented his colleagues with his research into the issue of lighting.
The board has discussed for years ways to modify the town's bylaw to cut down on light pollution. Carlisle at the April meeting discussed his studies of lighting temperature and directional lighting.
"There's a lot of unnecessary lighting in town," Carlisle said. "We waste a lot of light."
A big part of that "over lighting" is because of street lights, and Carlisle said he would communicate with the Prudential Committee, which oversees the town's fire district and has jurisdiction over street lights (going back to the days when they were gas-powered fixtures).
"If you're trying to see the road, you don't need to light 100 feet on either side of the road," Carlisle said.
In addition to writing a bylaw that the town could implement to change what's allowed for new private lighting fixtures, Carlisle hopes that by engaging the Prudential Committee, it can work with National Grid — which owns the street lights — to use lights with the appropriate intensity and direction to reduce spillage.
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