New Milford agricultural regulations could soon change. Some farmers have concerns.

Photo of Currie Engel

NEW MILFORD — Local farmers have concerns over proposed agricultural regulations, with some saying they don’t want any additional regulations added while others question whether they are in their best interest.

The town’s Farmland and Forest Preservation Committee had been asked by the mayor and other town officials to come up with some fresh guidelines for things like farm stands, and to define what counted as farming activity versus what did not in the town.

“The regulations, as they existed, weren’t necessarily clear,” said Chairman Steve Kleppin of Windswept Tree Farm said at Wednesday’s meeting.

The document proposes incorporating local farm product and parking lot requirements, requiring agritourism occur at established agricultural operations, and the use of zoning permits or site plan applications for “farm product stands” and “farm stores,” among other stipulations. The draft also included a list of proposed definitions for certain farming activities, products, buildings and structures like farmer’s markets, farm stands, and farm stores.

After the committee spent several months drafting the new regulatory proposals, their first draft was met with opposition from many in attendance.While the committee members said they’re trying to promote and protect New Milford’s farmers, some feel it may do the opposite.

The argument boils down to those who believe regulation is in the best interest of local farmers, and those who don’t want any added rules and restrictions placed on the town’s agricultural community.

“We’re not in favor of really any impediments that the town of New Milford wants to create on local farmers, farm stands, and local agriculture,” said Joe Quaranta, who owns a farm in the area and has been trying to grow his agriculture business.

“We support the blocking of any and all impediments that they’re trying to create.”

The committee held the first open forum on the drafted proposals to get feedback from the community Wednesday, and said they’re willing to revise the proposal based on the comments and concerns raised there.

The proposal is just the first step. After it is completed, the recommendations would be handed over to the Zoning Commission, which would decide whether they were items the commission was interested in discussing and possibly enacting.

“Our organization is not a regulatory agency, we’re an advisory committee. We don’t set policy. So we came up with some initial guidelines, some initial text, and then wanted to get input from others,” said Kleppin.

The committee previously drafted what became the 2008 Right to Farm Ordinance in New Milford, which was later adopted at the state level, Kleppin said.

While some attendees raised specific issues they had with various sections, others were more general in their criticism or attended in support of frustrated farming friends.

During the meeting, resident Emily Harvey asked for clearer definitions for terms to ensure no confusion.

Meredith Quaranta, wife of Joe, drew issue with the possibility of having to obtain permits for certain agricutlural activities and was worried about the added time and monetary cost to farmers.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re trying to protect them. It sounds like we’re trying to turn them over to the Zoning Department,” Meredith Quaranta said of suggested regulations.

Others were in favor of the regulations and supported the work done by the committee.

Margery Feldberg of De Hoek Farm is a frequent attendee at the committee meetings and said that she supported the committee’s efforts, even if the draft wasn’t perfect.

“[The regulations] give farmers an affirmative right to sell their goods, just as the Right to Farm Ordinance gave farmers an affirmative right to farm despite other zoning and noise considerations,” Feldberg wrote in an email to the News-Times. “A careful read of the proposed [regulations] indicates that they are positive for farming, not negative.”

She argued that the regulations would offer legal protection to farmers in the area, providing them a barrier to legal issues that might arise— be it an accident at a farm stand, or other liabilities that come with selling products for consumption.

Feldberg also said that more defined product regulations would elevate the quality and the perception of local foods, which she felt would be good for farms, but that permit costs are also a legitimate concern.

“Can the document be improved? Of course it can be, and I think the committee was extremely open to hearing those comments,” Feldberg said.

Kleppin said that the meeting brought up some good questions and valid concerns about the proposal that the committee is hoping to address before bringing the document back for a second round of feedback.

While a second meeting date has not been officially set, Kleppin said he’s aiming for the end of September, when farmers might have more time to attend the meeting.

“There’s no urgency on passing this,” Kleppin said. “I think it's just something that if we evaluate it further and we still feel there's a benefit to going forward with this, then we'll keep going forward with potential changes.”

In the meantime, Quaranta has already created an online petition, “Save Our Farmstands,” that asks for farm stands to be added to the Right to Farm Ordinance without further zoning regulations, and is trying to plan the town’s first Farm Fest on May 29, celebrating local agriculture with live music and food trucks. The price of entry is a signature on the petition.

“Currently, we have 2,500 signatures on our petition,” Quaranta said. “And we're hopeful that by the end of May, and after our event, we will have considerably more.”