Amending regulations to encourage farming, preserve rural character

Easton officials are looking at the possibility of amending zoning regulations to encourage farming and preserve the town’s rural character.

The Planning & Zoning Commission on Jan. 14 discussed how it could preserve large parcels of undeveloped land, help and encourage farmers and potentially permit a winery, which would be only the second in southwestern Connecticut.

Jean Stetz-Puchalski, chairwoman of the town’s Agricultural Commission, said agriculture is now scattered throughout the regulations and asked whether it ought to have its own section since the two main land uses in Easton are residential and agricultural.

“If we have large tracts of land up for sale, how do we attract agriculture to town?” she asked P&Z members during a 60-minute discussion in Town Hall.

Victor Alfandre, a member of the Agricultural Commission, said many of the town’s farmers are older and have children who have no interest in continuing the farm. He said a “big-picture reality” is that large tracts of “beautiful, prime land” could be on the market in the near future and if zoning regulations can be changed so people can establish viable farming operations, “that is in everyone’s interest.”

Ms. Stetz-Puchalski said a recent New York Times article, entitled “Satisfying the Need for Dirty Fingernails,” revealed more people are interested in becoming “gentlemen farmers” and that the town’s current farmers “are always looking for additional land to farm.”

She added that farmers traditionally hold workshops on their land to explain how farming is done and that Easton properties include forests and the eastern part of the United States was a main source of hardwood to Canada and other countries.

“There’s a lot of potential to really consider open space and large parcels coming up for sale,” she said.

Ms. Stetz-Puchalski asked how the town could support farmers in the off-season so they can be economically viable. “We really want to give them the support so they don’t disappear,” she said. “It speaks to quality of life and why people move to Easton.”

The town of Newtown, Ms. Stetz-Puchalski said, has a “wonderful set of regulations” pertaining to agriculture that she’d like to discuss with the P&Z.

Robert Maquat, P&Z chairman, said his commission would welcome receiving copies of other towns’ regulations for review and that recent legislation adopted by the state encouraged the promotion of agriculture. “Our regulations need some work,” he said. “Let’s get some information.”

Mr. Maquat said some people come to Easton because of its rural character, and they likely would rather see more agricultural uses of land than new residential developments. He said the P&Z could look at helping the town’s current farmers operate their businesses year-round, as well as aid someone who wants to start a farm.

Mr. Alfandre said he believed the town’s current regulations are “very prohibitive” of establishing an economically viable farm.

P&Z members said traffic, particularly to farms that become tourist destinations, would need to be considered, and permitting amenities, such as an ice cream stand, would have to be viewed in light of the property’s size. “From a zoning standpoint, this has to be managed effectively,” Mr. Maquat said.

Ms. Stetz-Puchalski said it could take months to establish trust with existing farmers when it comes to changing the regulations. “Not only do their eyes glaze over, but there’s a sense of fear in how does this impact what I’m doing now?” she said.

Steve Carlson, a P&Z member, said, “There is a problem when you amend anything. There are winners and losers.”

Easton has 22 farms and the Agricultural Commission holds a farm tour every year that attracts 500 people, 70% of whom live outside Easton, including as far away as New York, Ms. Stetz-Puchalski said. While some nearby towns, such as Fairfield and Westport, have farmers’ markets, she said Easton “is a farmers’ market.”

Robert DeVellis, a P&Z member, said many of the town’s farmers are older and asked if they knew of support they can receive through conservation easements and development rights.

Mr. Maquat said the process for amending zoning regulations would involve receiving input from the Agriculture Commission, drafting amendments if the commission chooses to do that and holding a public hearing, after which the commission could further amend proposed regulation changes. “We want to hear public opinion,” he said.

Ms. Stetz-Puchalski said, “I think the outcome is to create a climate of support for agriculture in Easton.”

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