Washington zoning change on public events disappoints some residents

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
A musician in a field of wildflowers is among the sights at the Five Senses Festival in Washington, which is usually held over the summer. This festival came under consideration at the town's recent Zoning Commission meeting.

A musician in a field of wildflowers is among the sights at the Five Senses Festival in Washington, which is usually held over the summer. This festival came under consideration at the town’s recent Zoning Commission meeting.

Renee Jaworski / Contributed photo /

WASHINGTON — Some residents say they’re not pleased with the changes the Zoning Commission recently approved to the town’s zoning regulations, citing worries about the effect on special events.

Some residents expressed concern that the changes, called the “Proposed Revision to the Washington Zoning Regulations — Section 12.8 Temporary Uses,” which take effect March 10, could still restrict many art, drama and culture events at homes, farms, land trusts, libraries, museums and clubs in town. Changes that were approved include restricting special events in residential and farm zones to two, one-day events per year and requiring permits and parking plans.

At the meeting where the changes were approved, several commission members said the revisions were necessary. Chairman Nicholas Solley said the revisions “protect the residential character of residential neighborhoods in accordance with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.”

Solley said the revisions, “explain the range of permitted temporary uses by allowing additional artistic entertainment endeavors that are important to Washington’s economic vitality.” Solley said, “the general public will be amazed at how little the regulation change actually affects their daily lives.”

Also at that meeting, commission member David Werkhoven said the panel had done “due diligence” with regard to this topic.

But Susan Averill, owner of Averill Farm apple orchard, said the public events she has been holding to help support her farm will now be jeopardized.

Farming “is not a big income producer and most farms these days have branched out, adding various agritainment activities,” she said. “Sadly, it seems our town is not forward thinking.”

For the immediate future, Averill said she’ll continue with fall harvesting and “pick-your-own,” which draws “big crowds for about eight weeks in September and October. Beyond that, we just don’t know at this point.”

Additionally, she said while her family is very grateful to volunteer commissioners who serve the town, “the Zoning Board really stumbled” with this decision.

She referred to the public hearings on this issue and 70 pages of letters with negative feedback about the proposed changes. There was also a letter circulated through social media that garnered 100 signatures.

“We feel they should have listened to their constituents,” said Averill, adding Averill farm is celebrating 275 years in business.

“We had hoped to hold several events in 2021,” she said. “Perhaps the opposition to these strict regulations will have to be brought before a town meeting, or maybe see if a definition of farming that includes ancillary uses can be adopted.”

Averill’s son Tyson, who will soon be taking over operations of the farm, said he’s been getting inquiries about events in addition to fruit picking. “These potential customers then choose to visit neighboring towns that have allowed their farms to diversify into events. Allowing only two events per year on our property will prevent us from being able to compete with other area farms,” Tyson Averill said.

Washington First Selectman Jim Brinton said while he’s relieved that two commissioners recognized the need to respond to so many in the community, he remains “baffled at what exactly we are trying to achieve with this regulation.

“The simple fact is that our farms can no longer be sustained with crops and cows. Times do change and we need to be prepared to adjust to those changes,” Brinton said. “If we fail to realize this, we risk losing the institutions that are so important to the community.”

Resident Steve Brighenti also said he is disappointed by the approved revisions.

“Two events per year from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. by permit and parking plan harms the farms, land trusts, clubs, and museums that depend on outside income beyond their customary and incidental uses,” he said.

Additionally, he said all those organizations depend on events to survive. To make his point, he referred to a recent decision by Newtown’s land use board pertaining to a winery, which he said supported “farms and rural character.”

The winery, called Aquila’s Nest Vineyards, which is located in a residential neighborhood, is the latest vineyard in Connecticut to benefit from expanded state laws allowing private parties and special events on farmland to boost agribusiness, according a Hearst Connecticut Media story.

In celebrating its 100th day in business, Aquilla’s was given permission by Newtown’s land use board to host art installations, yoga meditations, food trucks and private parties for up to 150 people. According to the story, the approval means Newtown’s newest and only vineyard can begin marketing itself not only as a place to buy locally grown dry rose, but as a destination.

However, Tim Ingrassia of Spring Hill Farms and Vineyard expressed some satisfaction with the commission.

He said while the outcome of the meeting wasn’t one he hoped for, it “ultimately represented listening and compromise ... Heated debate and an engaged citizenry are good things. Fingers crossed on the path forward.”

Ingrassia shared a recent letter he sent the town’s Board of Selectmen and Zoning Commission that commended the Zoning Commission on the “time, patience, and energy” taken on this issue... the process reflected the best of politics, community engagement, and compromise,” he wrote.

Additionally, Ingrassia wrote he’s hopeful “there is sufficient flexibility in the ‘incidental and customary’ language on temporary uses to maintain what we’ve come to expect for our town. If not, we will need to adapt and (shudder) revise these regulations again.”