Cumberland council reverses decision on farm uses

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CUMBERLAND — The Town Council on Monday reversed its recent decision and will now allow farms to be used as commercial wedding venues.

Councilors voted 4-2 to allow the ordinance change.

But the approval did not come without harsh words from the council chairman to the people who spearheaded the amendment effort.

Cumberland has 36 registered farms, and Joanne Fryer asked in January about being able to host weddings on her property as an income source. But since the town did not have that as an allowable use, it originally rejected the idea, Town Manager Bill Shane has said.

However, the 2009 Comprehensive Plan calls for town regulations to be modified so that registered farms can be used for activities beyond farming, such as weddings and summer camps. That led the Ordinance Committee to spend several months developing proposed ordinance language to allow such uses.

The new rules are restricted to farms of at least 5 acres in Rural Residential Districts 1 and 2, and also include existing farms in the Medium Density Residential district, such as Sweetser’s Apple Barrel & Orchards on Blanchard Road.

The ordinance stipulates farms can hold no more than eight events a year with town approval, and activities must be capped at eight hours, excluding equipment set-up and breakdown. Amplified music is allowed only from 10 a.m.-10 p.m., no louder than 60 decibels at the property line.

The Town Council will issue a business license, contingent on the farm’s annual compliance with the ordinance, that allows input and feedback from neighbors.

Although Councilors on Oct. 23 found that caveat attractive, concern over the impact on neighbors during the popular summertime wedding months led the panel to reject the proposal, 5-2, with only Councilors Shirley Storey-King and George Turner voting in favor. An amendment to cap weddings at five a year also failed.

That moved Fryer, who grows flowers at her Bruce Hill Road home, to start a petition for a special referendum to reverse the Council decision.

But since Councilors Monday approved the ordinance as unanimously recommended by the Planning Board Oct. 17, Fryer is pulling the petition, she said Monday evening.

Although the Council did not hold a public hearing because there was one Oct. 23, it did hear from residents during the general discussion section earlier in Monday’s meeting.

“We are not against farmers, or farming in Cumberland, or anywhere for that matter, as some of you may have been led to believe,” said David Higgins, whose Bruce Hill Road property neighbors a farm.

He noted that people move to Cumberland for its “rural ambiance,” an element he said would be changed if farm events are allowed.

“These events would create more traffic (and) noise before, during and after said events take place,” Higgins said. “… Selfishly tonight, I am here to protect my current Cumberland’s way of life for over 50 years and counting.”

Teri Maloney-Kelly, a Planning Board member, said she supported the Council’s move to reconsider its decision.

“You need to let this have a chance to work,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do for the farmers, especially; they’re business owners as well. As neighbors, honestly, there is always a level of inconvenience when you live in a neighborhood. And I think this inconvenience is not unrealistic.”

Tom Gruber moved to reconsider the panel’s decision and was seconded by George Turner.

“This is not as simple a decision as some people appear to think it is,” Turner said. He suggested to his fellow councilors that if they felt a referendum reversing the Council vote would succeed, as he did, “the Council has the ability to take care of the traffic situation, and noise problems, and so on in this ordinance. If you don’t vote for this tonight and it goes to referendum and passes, there’s a lot less control over all of that.”

Chairman Mike Edes and Councilor Ron Copp said they stood by their Oct. 23 decision, and voted against the amendment.

“I think that the way this has been handled by the people who brought this to our attention has been horrible,” Edes said. “The way they’ve treated their neighbors is horrible.”

After the meeting, Edes said Councilors have heard Joanne and Greg Fryer were rude to neighbors who opposed the amendment.

“If I can’t trust them to treat a neighbor who disagrees with them the right way, how can I trust them bringing a business into a neighborhood,” he said.

The Fryers declined to discuss Edes’ remarks after the meeting. But they praised the Council’s reversal of its October decision.

“We’re really excited about this opportunity for Cumberland farmers to be able to do this,” Joanne Fryer said. “… I think it’s a good business for the town.”

She had yet to collect all of the 668 signatures – 10 percent of Cumberland’s registered voters – she needed to bring the issue to referendum, but Fryer said she would have had enough if necessary.

Greg Fryer said the Comprehensive Plan recognizes that many farms are no longer traditional enterprises. “It’s a matter of sustainability,” he said.

The Council’s reconsideration “took some courage,” Fryer added. “It was the right call. And not for the Fryers; it’s the right call for the town.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.