Farm plan draws ire
There was more expressed opposition than support at the opening of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s public hearing Dec. 10 on Millstone Property Holdings, LLC’s application to create a regulatory change to Wilton’s zoning regulations.
There was standing-room only in Room A of the town hall annex, where residents had gathered to share their thoughts on the application, as well as events that have been taking place at Millstone Farm.
The 70-acre property at 180 Millstone Road was purchased in 2016 by Volckert and Eliane van Reesema, who opened an equestrian riding facility that operates alongside the working farm.
Under the name “Millstone Property Holdings, LLC,” the owners are seeking to amend several sections of the zoning regulations to establish regulatory provisions for “agritourism” as a special permitted use in single-family residential districts and allow offices accessory to a farm or riding stable as a permitted accessory use.
In a letter to “friends and supporters,” the Millstone Farm owners said they submitted the application after it was brought to their attention that some of the activities held on the farm “may not fall within existing zoning regulations.” The property is in an R-2 residential zone.
Various events have been held at the farm over the years, said Town Planner Bob Nerney, but when farm-to-table events held there over the summer were brought to his attention, he said, the property was “directed … to stop that activity.”
The owners wrote that they would like to continue these activities, which is why they are “seeking to create a zoning regulatory change” — a new classification called “agritourism” that would allow people to visit a working farm for education, recreation or entertainment activities that would add to the farm’s economic viability.
Nerney said agritourism is “an interesting concept” that “tends to be helpful for struggling farms.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “there can be an expansive list of uses, some of which may not be suitable for this particular property or other farm properties in town.”
If the commission is “inclined to move toward … accepting a change in the regulations,” Nerney said, he thinks it’s “very important to find out what are those anticipated activities.”
Approval of the Millstone application, Nerney said, would set up a special permit process requiring property owners to undergo public hearings if they wish to conduct agritourism.
Complaints and concerns
A number of residents at the hearing complained about loud, late-night weddings at the farm, excessive traffic, and being “run off the road” by vehicles going to or from the farm. Some expressed concerns about opening the farm up to corporate events, weddings, and overnight stays.
Ann Klotz, a 55-year resident of Millstone Road, said agritourism will bring “devastation” to Millstone Farm. She said Millstone farm is “a property worth preserving” and “venture capitalist-type of destruction” doesn’t need to be brought there.
Millstone Road resident Mark Rice, who lives across the street from the farm’s entrance, said he believes the farm’s owners are “doing an end-run around approval in order to operate a commercial operation.”
“In this particular neighborhood,” he said, “I don’t think it is appropriate.”
Nod Hill Road resident G.M. O’Connell said the rationale for the proposal “seems to ensure financial viability of the farm.”
“It seems to be that the town in some ways … is being asked to subsidize a transaction that was made [in 2016]. I don’t think that’s what we’re in the business of doing in this town,” said O’Connell, adding that the farm has been advertising a 500-person capacity for weddings and events.
“I just think that there are things going on right now that folks may not be aware of in how the property owners are currently advertising the rental of their property for wedding and events. Five hundred people on that property is just not anything we’d like to see.”
Commissioners repeatedly reminded the public that the focus of the hearing isn’t on Millstone Farm and what takes place there, but on a zoning regulation change that would affect all R-1A and R-2 properties in town.
For the public hearing, commissioner Rich Tomasetti said, the commission “would prefer comments on the text changes.” If the application is accepted, Tomasetti said, some of the issues and concerns being brought up about the farm are “things that would be looked at during a public hearing” if the farm were to apply for agritourism.
Commissioner Matthew Murphy said the public hearings would be “site-specific.” Murphy also noted that there are other properties in town that would be affected by the proposed zoning regulation changes, to which a member of the public shouted, “That’s exactly our concern.”
Not all public comments were in opposition. Around four or five of commenters expressed support of the application and/or Millstone Farm’s activities.
Justin Ramsteck, a Millstone Road resident of about 15 years, for example, said he has “never been upset with any of the events” held at the farm and hasn’t “seen any downside to what they’re doing there.”
Although she understands “there should be some restrictions on events,” Nod Hill Road resident Kate Throckmorton said she “strongly” supports the text amendments and believes agritourism could be “a great benefit” to the town.
Millstone Road resident Nick Lee said he thinks he approves of the proposed change but would like to see “very tight restrictions on certain events.”
Nerney said it’s the town’s position that “what’s been taking place [at Millstone Farm] isn’t permitted” and “doesn’t fit into a box of regulations that we have today.”
“Agritourism can take many, many different forms,” he said, and “if the commission is amenable to passing some sort of regulation, it’s probably [best to] try and limit operations or make them as specific as possible.”
The public hearing will continue at the commission’s next meeting, scheduled for Monday, Jan. 14, at 7:15 p.m., in Room A of the town hall annex.