AGvocate workshop draws agriculture commission members from 12 towns

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Dec. 3, 2012
AGvocate Program Manager John Guszkowski and Thompson resident Norma O'Leary spoke at the AGvocate workshop on Nov. 29. Photos by D. Coffey.
AGvocate Program Manager John Guszkowski and Thompson resident Norma O'Leary spoke at the AGvocate workshop on Nov. 29. Photos by D. Coffey.

Canterbury Town Hall was the epicenter for a region-wide gathering of agriculture commission members on Nov. 29. Residents from Woodstock, Thompson, Killingly, Canterbury, Ashford, Hampton, Pomfret, Bozrah, Sprague, Franklin, Windham and Columbia gathered to share information about issues impacting agriculture in their towns.

The workshop was presented by the AGvocate Program, which promotes farm-friendly policies and regulations in Eastern Connecticut. Its goals include helping towns better deal with the diversity of small, farm-based businesses in their communities. According to Program Director John Guszkowski, there are agriculture commissions in less than 20 of Connecticut’s 169 towns. Before the program’s inception in 2009, there were only three commissions.

“We’re starting from scratch,” said Thompson resident and farmer Norma O’Leary. She was a major force behind the inauguration of the AGvocate Program. O’Leary saw the need to have agriculture represented on the municipal level because decisions were often made without understanding the impacts on farmers. “People who do not understand agriculture were making decisions for agriculture and they didn't know how it affected farmers,” she said. “Till they walk in that farmer's shoes, they don't understand.”

Many of the representatives at the workshop spoke of the need to increase the visibility of farms in their towns, work with planning and zoning committees to revise regulations where necessary, and make sure their respective Plans of Conservation and Development took agriculture into consideration.

Planner Nathan Kelly, from the Horsley Witten Group, Inc., spoke to the gathering about a report his firm had compiled regarding issues affecting agriculture in Rhode Island. Issues affecting farming and rural communities are similar in every state, he said. Whether you’re talking about Connecticut or Hawaii, there are developmental and residential pressures on farmers. “We’re losing farms to residential development,” he said. “Owners of forest lots or large tracts of land, which are valuable to the landscape and for conservation purposes, are under pressure to sell to developers. We need to help farmers and big land owners.”

“Agriculture is a unique business,” he said. “The question becomes, how do we regulate it? The economics of farming is challenging. Forestry isn’t yielding as much income as it has in the past. There is a lot of pressure to sell. Home-based businesses are increasing in rural areas. It’s happening everywhere.”

The report looked at the impact agricultural businesses had on a town, such as noise, traffic, trash, aesthetics and nuisance factors. He argued that regulations take into account the size, scope, nature and specifics of an agricultural business. Establishing performance standards such as minimum lot size, parking, setbacks, signage and landscaping would help balance the needs of business owners and their neighbors. “We need to look at how things should be developed rather than what will be developed,” he said. He suggested specific language be used in all regulatory reviews and classification systems be established.

Agriculture is a complicated and diverse business. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Guszkowski. “You have a diversity of operations, livestock, neighborhoods and jurisdiction issues.”

Think of impact rather than use, he said. “Plan first. Regulate second.” He shared information from a June 2012 report compiled by the Eastern Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development Area, Inc.  The guide was written to provide information for municipal officials in Connecticut drafting land use regulations regarding livestock.  “Local officials don’t have much guidance now,” he said. The 23-page report included recommendations for livestock farming, small plot farming, and the crafting of language in revising town regulations.

Killingly Director of Planning and Development Linda Walden said agriculture commission members sent a draft of proposed regulation changes to the P&Z Commission. “It was helpful,” she said. Several commission members spoke of the need for educational outreach to elementary and middle school students.

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