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    Monday, October 02, 2023

    Promising proposal in Stonington to keep farms vital

    Even in the barren days of December, when trees stand gray and naked and gardens devoid of a rainbow of vegetables, Stone Acres Farm is a peaceful, beautiful spot. The waters of Stonington’s Quanaduck Cove are just visible across an expanse of broad meadows, the pungent odor of the quarter-mile of boxwood shrubs in the formal gardens scents the air and a final blush rose, albeit somewhat withered, still perches on its vine.

    Jane Simmons Meiser fondly remembers playing as a child amidst these boxwoods when Stone Acres was run by her grandmother. Now, she envisions revitalizing it as a working farm, collaborating with and supporting other local farms and restaurants. She hopes it will be a place where the public can buy fresh vegetables, learn about local cheese making, microbrewing or bread baking and where school children can plant, cultivate and harvest their own food.

    Her vision depends on whether Stonington’s Planning and Zoning Commission supports a proposal to create a so-called agricultural heritage district zone that could be applied to specific parcels, including Stone Acres Farm. The commission will conduct a public hearing on the topic Tuesday. We believe the proposal deserves resounding support.

    “We had to think about how to make farms sustainable,” Meiser said of the plan she and her farm partners brought forward.

    Farms such as Stone Acres once were ubiquitous throughout the state. These working farms with dairy herds, chickens, pigs, acres of vegetables and farm stands brimming with fresh produce, meat and eggs, began disappearing a century ago. The rate at which farm fields were carved into house lots quickened in the decades following World War II.

    Organizations such as the Connecticut Farmland Trust have worked in recent years to preserve farmland, and a thriving locavore movement has renewed interest in local agriculture and farming as a business. Still, in a state with high property values, especially near the shoreline, farmland preservation remains a challenging task.

    The Trust and its partners helped protect nearly 4,000 acres of farmland since 2002, but Connecticut still annually loses 20 percent more farmland than it saves. There are some 4,900 farm families in Connecticut, but for every farmer younger than 35, there are six older than 65.

    It is against such odds that Meiser and her partners are working to preserve and revitalize the 63-acre North Main Street property that has been a working farm since 1765.

    The agricultural heritage district zoning proposal requires properties to be at least 35 acres. Farms also must be in continual operation at least 25 years. Some 20 Stonington properties could be eligible to apply for the zone that allows a variety of agricultural and associated uses ranging from passive recreation trails and hosting special events to the operation of farm markets, craft distilleries, wineries and boutique inns.

    If the zone is approved, owners of specific properties would have to apply for their land to be rezoned. The zoning commission can apply requirements and stipulations on a property-by-property basis, a process that helps protect neighbors.

    The benefits of farmland preservation are undeniable. It preserves open space, protects an important part of the region’s heritage and provides consumers and restaurateurs with more opportunities to be closer to their food sources. Where land values are high, however, preserving farms is a challenge and it can only be achieved through innovative practices such as this zoning proposal. We commend Meiser and her business partners for this effort, urge Stonington’s zoning commission to approve it, and encourage other towns’ zoning officials to consider similar additions to municipal regulations.

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