Monday, May 12, 2008

Town Meeting: How far should we extend the "Right to Farm?"

Town meeting is tonight. Responsible citizens like me (pat, pat) will head on down to the school at 7:00 and spend four or so hours on the hard bleachers slogging through 62 articles. How a town with an otherwise sleepy political landscape can manage to put 62 articles on the warrant is beyond me (fellow sleepy political town Lancaster had only 20 articles when they met last week, for instance). As I combed through the pile of appropriations for this project or that, one article stands out.

The most interesting is the proposal that Sterling become a “Right to Farm” community. Right to Farm towns generally make it easier for local farmers by making it harder for abutters to sue them if they don’t like the odor, dust, loud machines, and other aesthetic byproducts of farming. Sterling has had a long history of family farming and still hosts a number of orchards, stables, and other farms.

In theory, I think this is a good idea, although not everybody agrees. But there is one section of the bylaw that I strongly object to. The law provides that all new home buyers receive a written notification of the Right to Farm provisions and that all landowners also receive the notice yearly. The notification states (emphasis mine):
It is the policy of this community to conserve, protect and encourage the maintenance and improvement of agricultural land for the production of food, and other agricultural products, and also for its natural and ecological value. This disclosure notification is to inform buyers or occupants that the property they are about to acquire or occupy lies within a town where farming activities occur. Such farming activities may include, but are not limited to, activities that cause noise, dust and odors. Buyers or occupants are also informed that the location of property within the Town may be impacted by commercial agricultural operations including the ability to access water services for such property under certain circumstances.
In other words, good luck if your well is fouled with manure or fertilizers, or runs dry because a farm in the aquifer uses more water than the aquifer can replenish. Considering the recent discussions Sterling has been having in town about water rights, and the widespread opposition to Clinton’s Wekepeke proposal at least in part on the basis of its potential to affect other wells in the aquifer, this clause needs to be struck from the proposed bylaw in order for me to support it. The ability to access clean water is just as important when the threat is from a farm as it is if the threat is from a big retail corporation. To leave this clause in the bylaw would be hypocritcal.

While the water clause is in the sample bylaw provided by the state Department of Agricultural resources, many towns have omitted it from their bylaws. Sterling should do the same.

The other issue I have with the notification is that the annual notice to residents “shall be provided by the Town to landowners each fiscal year by mail.” Printing and mailing 5,000 or so notices seems to me to be an unnecessary expense. Sterling should provide the notice in a publication that is already printed--such as the Annual Report--and on its Web site, saving the extra cost.

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