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Bishop: The Problem with Planning - Rhode Mappers are Here From Government to ‘Help’ Farmers

Thursday, September 14, 2017


In a little watched and less reported development in Exeter, the Town Planning apparatus has farmers in its sights. Of course, they present this in the typical: “we’re here to help you”  vernacular.  So they were shocked when farmers showed up en masse at a public hearing last week to say they didn’t want the help.

Indeed they were particularly chagrined that all this opposition could come to light now, when the ordinance is on its 6th iteration. Of course, this opinion piece could be the very first bit of ‘journalism’ on this longstanding supposedly transparent effort. But, as Douglas Adams is wont to have said through the personage of Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the plans have been on display in a cellar without lights in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of Leopard”.

Here is a newsflash for planning professionals: Real farmers don’t sit around in stakeholder sessions negotiating their rights away. There is no possible way that what you propose is representative, sensible or farm friendly. In fact, its friendly to no one, because everyone is potentially a farmer just as everyone could potentially want to house grandma over the garage or work on a car in it in the face of planners fixations that these ‘accessory uses’ are some kind of evil -- Just as planners in Providence have spent years extirpating the evil of the corner store from neighborhoods, only to find out that people actually like them.

Farmers should get no more special treatment than anyone, the sanctity of whose property and entrepeneurship planners regularly invade, as if the whole world were a monopoly game in which planners decide where the houses and hotels [and corner stores and pig pens] go.

Elite Zoning encourages, not discourages, development

To be fair to the current crop of planners, the seeds of the destruction of their efforts were planted long ago in the adoption of zoning in Exeter to begin with. One of the last towns in the state to do so, would have been much better off without it.  Without zoning, there would have been little threat to Exeter’s farms and forests to begin with.  Yes, a few of them would have been developed into postage stamp lots. Instead the town is being carved up into mini-estates. The population doubled in the decade after the adoption of zoning.

Well, duh – as soon as zoning established that one could no longer put a mobile home next to some new mcmansion, Exeter was slated to be the next East Greenwich. And this is how the planners ‘saved’ us? Up until that point it had been well understood, if only articulated in impolite company, that if you moved to Exeter you would marry your cousin and your kids would turn dumb. There was no more powerful limit on development in Exeter than this perception which was undone in a flourish of bureaucracy that made the town safe for bedroom community – the very thing it proposed to avoid.

White trash stereotype was a much better check on development

Indeed, one of the largest scandals during the tenure of RIs own version of  J. Edgar Hoover, long time state police Colonel Walter Stone, involved his executive officer Major Lionel Benjamin confirming this stereotype. Benjamin, when being deposed on his opposition to patrol work for the earliest female state troopers indicated his opinion that they would not be up to going into a bar in Hope Valley and breaking up a fight between “illiterate woodcutters”.

For those of you not intimately familiar with swamp yankee geography, Hope Valley isn’t really part of Exeter. It's in Hopkington, next to Wyoming (which is in Richmond vs. say Mystic which is in both Stonington and Groton). But Hope Valley is right down Route 3 and it is cultural kin with Exeter in the way that Pawcatuck is part of Westerly, and Attleboro and Fall River look to Providence moreso than Boston as a relevant metro partner. 

To disclose a conflict, Exeter has a special place in my heart because it is the place I went in the late 1970s to get away from the stifling bureaucracy of the city life. Little did I know that I was moving towards a far more insidious bureaucracy. As a transplant, I have to confess that I was a woodcutter and illiterate before I there. So I fit right in (esp. after they found out I was a Republican) even if I’m still a newcomer 40 years later. I did go to some of those bars Major Benjamin was talking about, and he had a point of sorts.

Bureaucrats not happy with what they were hearing at the hearing.

But even illiterates know, when someone says we’re here from the government to help you, that it is time to show them the door. A hearing last week on this Farm and Forest Accessory Business Overlay District (one can tell it’s a bad idea simply by the length of the title) so overflowed the halls of the Exeter Council chambers that it had to be rescheduled. This week the Planning Board read the tea leaves and withdrew the proposal for the time being. Not only did Exetarians turn out for this hearing, but also farmers and concerned property owners from across the state who understood the effort in Exeter to be a model that, like a contagion among the ranks of planners, would be urged for adoption in every exurban community in the state.

The dazed, if literate, planning establishment is wondering what happened. They claim they were out to help farms and secure their place in Exeter.  But one has only to read the purpose of the proposed ordinance to understand that it aggrandizes planners and makes farmers subservient to bedroom community priorities: “While the Town of Exeter wants to encourage limited accessory business uses for farm and forest landowners, it also recognizes the critical need to protect the integrity of its residential areas.”(emphasis added)

Farmers are neighbors too

It isn’t that farmers expect a pass on neighborliness. But they properly bristle at the suggestion that engaging in the most normative farming activites, e.g. hosting a farmstand or pick-your-own-produce operation is a use other than farming. The biggest mess in accessory uses these days are higher profile, but if that were really the issue the planners have no business making a laundry list of minutiae that would make the post office blush.

Certainly the public will have been aware of the high profile war between two Exeter neighbors, neither of whom was a farmer in the classic sense, but both of whom have lots of money and lots of land and relied on the ‘right to farm’ in trying to advance their activities. This, of course, is the case of developer Jerry Zarella who deigned to build 4 homes rather than 10 on some 30 acres in Exeter – as if that was some gift; and make up the difference on this ‘farm’ by holding weddings and the like. A neighbor with a large adjacent holding, who was no more farmer than Zarella, took issue with this and just happened to stockpile chicken manure for spreading the week of the first weddings. This made a splash in the news but says nothing whatsoever about what farmers do or don’t need by way of traditional or emerging activities in selling produce and farm experience as a way to survive.

Farms as window dressing

The hubris of this proposed ordinance is to imagine that the town has any idea of what will make farms sustainable. And really, they don’t want farms on farms terms. They want them as bucolic window dressing that augments the “integrity” of residential uses but does not disturb the emerging order of bedroom uber alles.

This was the problem created by zoning to begin with and it is simply epitomized by planners who have nothing better to do than think up silly addendums to solve the problem of ordinances that should never have been passed in the first place.

One of the perfect examples of where planners think they know what they are doing and they know nothing is the ordinance’s attempt to define farms as nothing smaller than 5 acres.  After all, anyone on less than 5 acres is surely just cynically trying to take advantage of their neighbors and couldn’t be running a serious agricultural operation, right?

In fact, one of the more longstanding and successful commercial farming operations in Exeter is Our Kids Farm. Pioneered by John and Holly Howard who had the neighborliness, if lack of good sense, to befriend me upon my arrival in Exeter. Their greenhouse based operation has grown bedding plants, hothouse tomatoes, annuals and perennials of all sorts in concert with both remote retail operation, and a farmstand selling their own produce and that of others, much frequented by the summer residents of the nearby Wawaloam Campground in Richmond. But this all takes place on a paltry 4 acres. After some 25 years the Howards sold to the current proprietors, Loren and Gina Thurn who continue to grow both flowers and produce and have an extended season for their farmstand, CSA, and deliveries to local restaurants enabled by their intensive greenhouse based operation.

Of course planners will say: this is only a simple exception. It is already established, no one was targeting Our Kids Farm. But they did target it. No one who operates a farm on under 5 acres wants to see an ordinance that says anything under 5 acres is not a farm (Just as no one with a farmstand or a pick your own operation wants to see an ordinance that says that is not farming). Indeed, the state is busy trying to shower bond money to catalyze more of this micro farming. That is as wrongheaded as the effort to zone it out of business.

Things are not made sustainable by subsidizing or regulating them; by deciding how big farms have to be and whether they will survive on eggplants, crop mazes or wedding rings. Leave them the hell alone.  And if they are poor neighbors who act inconsiderately and outside the rump of what are regular contemporary farm activities then do something. But don’t adopt reams of nonsense that purports to help farms while actually undercutting their viability and making their every entrepreneurial option into a paper chase.  The town doesn’t need that hassle and the farmers certainly don’t.

Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, fighting over regulation and perverse incentives in tax policy. 


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