Stonington EDC endorses Stone Acres Farm plan

The Planning and Zoning Commission tours Stone Acres Farm on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Stonington. A public hearing will be held next week to go over the master plan for the farm's efforts to remain a working farm while adding various onsite commercial activities by establishing an Agricultural Heritage District. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
The Planning and Zoning Commission tours Stone Acres Farm on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Stonington. A public hearing will be held next week to go over the master plan for the farm's efforts to remain a working farm while adding various onsite commercial activities by establishing an Agricultural Heritage District. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Stonington — With a public hearing slated this week, the town’s Economic Development Commission unanimously has endorsed the proposed master plan for Stone Acres Farm, and farm representatives have tried to clear up some misconceptions about the project.

A day after the EDC endorsed the project last Wednesday, members of the Planning and Zoning Commission, which will hold a public hearing on the master plan application at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Mystic Middle school, toured the 381 North Main St. site with town Director of Planning Jason Vincent and project attorney Bill Sweeney.

Stone Acres already has obtained approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission to create a new Agricultural Heritage District, which is designed to preserve historical farms in town by allowing an expanded list of farm-related uses. Farms must have 35 acres and have been in continuous use for 25 years. Stone Acres has 65 acres and been in use since before the Revolutionary War.

Stone Acres has submitted a master plan application for development of the property into a campus that includes renovated and new buildings designed to host a variety of food production, education and other activities, such as weddings and farm dinners.

At last week’s EDC meeting, Jane Meiser, a member of the farm’s ownership group, and Sweeney answered questions from the commission and explained aspects of the project that they say have resulted in confusion and fueled misinformation.

“This is not a wedding factory. It can’t be. We don’t have the facilities. We have a tent,” Sweeney said.

Meiser told the EDC that the stark reality facing Connecticut farms is that there is a continuous loss of farmland to development that is affecting not only the business of farming but the state’s rural landscape as well.

She called the Agricultural Heritage District a “creative and innovative approach to repurposing a farm.”

She went through each of the buildings on the site and explained how each would be used.

For example, the greenhouse, which overlooks a flower garden and orchard, would be turned into a small restaurant and cafe that would feature farm-to-table offerings using produce grown on the farm and other locally sourced food. It would be open Thursdays through Sundays and have 45 seats with 20 more outside. During Thursday's tour, PZC members looked inside the brick and stone section of the greenhouse, which would become the restaurant's kitchen.    

There would be space for a vegetable market, cheese making, bakery and butchery in a former carriage house, a creamery, brewery/brew pub and classrooms for programs on culinary arts, historic preservation and farming in a new building. Vegetables, hay and flowers will continue to be grown on site. There are no plans to raise livestock.

During Thursday’s tour, PZC members visited one of the hoop greenhouses where more than 200 varieties of flowers and vegetables are being grown from seed in preparation for planting this spring.

Two new buildings are planned for the site. The first will be used to sort, wash and process produce grown on the site while the second will house the brew pub and educational programs. Neither would be visible from the street, as they are set back on the sloping property.

Meiser explained that the operation would create the equivalent of 54 full-time jobs, some off-site. With the new uses, the property would generate an estimated $75,000 in annual tax revenue for the town, compared to the current $14,000. The group’s analysis estimates the town would experience a $130,000 net loss in taxes if the land were converted into a residential subdivision, primarily because of the cost of educating schoolchildren.

Meiser said the project also would generate additional spending in town because some visitors would stay in local hotels and visit nearby shops and restaurants, especially in the borough.

In addition, she said, the farm would serve as a model for other farmers in the community. Sweeney said the Agricultural Heritage District allows the town to retain its historical character and charm while putting “a tool in the toolbox” for a dozen or more other farms.

As for the misconceptions, Meiser and Sweeney stressed there would be no parking along North Main Street even on the busiest hour of a Saturday with an event, when a traffic study estimates 126 cars entering the site and 40 leaving.

“Most of the time, you won’t know that anything is going on at the site,” Sweeney said.

They also stressed there would be no hotel or bed and breakfast operation on the site. Instead, the existing manor house and farmhouse could be rented in conjunction with those involved in a wedding or corporate event on the property, but rooms would not be rented to the general public.

The main gravel access road to the site would be moved to the north of the existing entrance on North Main Street, which would be reserved for deliveries and pedestrian use. There would be no entrance off Route 1.

There is no paved parking; instead, there are 40 gravel spots and overflow parking space in a farm field.

Planning and Zoning Commission members also visited the field where a tent would be used to host weddings and other events. It would be taken down in the off-season.

Meiser told the EDC that she does not yet have a specific number of events that would be held on the farm each year.

“But it’s a farm first,” she said. “It will remain a working farm. The tail will not wag the dog.”

“Farming is still the heart of this property,” Sweeney added.

As for the impact on nearby homeowners, Sweeney and Meiser told the EDC the closest homes not owned by those in the local ownership group are 650 feet and more than 1,000 feet away. The site also borders another farm.

Sweeney said lighting would be limited to just what is needed for safety, and ground-level lighting is being explored. Events would end at 10 p.m.

“We don’t want this to be lit up at night,” he said.

Sweeney also addressed a charge by a resident that the operation would not have to abide by a town ordinance that limits noise. He said the group has requested a waiver of a noise analysis from the commission but would have to comply with the town noise ordinance.

They also pointed out that a master plan approval, which stipulates what can be done on the property and what each building would be used for and its size, stays with the property even if it is sold and can not be changed without permission from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

If the PZC approves the master plan after Tuesday’s hearing, Stone Acres then would have to also obtain approval for its detailed site plan, which would require another public hearing.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Planning and Zoning Commission member Shaun Mastroianni, center, and Economic Development Commission Chairman Dave Hammond look at plants growing in a working greenhouse during a tour of Stone Acres Farm on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Stonington. A public hearing will be held next week to go over the master plan for the farm's efforts to remain a working farm while adding various onsite commercial activities by establishing an Agricultural Heritage District. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Planning and Zoning Commission member Shaun Mastroianni, center, and Economic Development Commission Chairman Dave Hammond look at plants growing in a working greenhouse during a tour of Stone Acres Farm on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Stonington. A public hearing will be held next week to go over the master plan for the farm's efforts to remain a working farm while adding various onsite commercial activities by establishing an Agricultural Heritage District. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
The Planning and Zoning Commission walks past the manor house, at left, and garden during a tour of Stone Acres Farm on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Stonington. A public hearing will be held next week to go over the master plan for the farm's efforts to remain a working farm while adding various onsite commercial activities by establishing an Agricultural Heritage District. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
The Planning and Zoning Commission walks past the manor house, at left, and garden during a tour of Stone Acres Farm on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Stonington. A public hearing will be held next week to go over the master plan for the farm's efforts to remain a working farm while adding various onsite commercial activities by establishing an Agricultural Heritage District. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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