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CUMBERLAND — A farm owner is petitioning for a special referendum to reverse a Town Council decision against allowing farms to be used as commerical wedding venues.
Concern primarily over impact to neighbors prompted the council on Oct. 23 to reject a proposed ordinance change that would have allowed farms to host weddings as an additional revenue stream.
Joanne Fryer, who grows flowers at her Bruce Hill Road home, must collect 668 signatures – 10 percent of Cumberland’s registered voters – to bring the issue to referendum, Town Clerk Tammy O’Donnell said Nov. 2.
There is no deadline for collecting signatures, but a public hearing would have to be held within 30 days after the signatures are certified, and the council would have to call the referendum within 30 days of that meeting.
Meanwhile, the Town Council is expected Monday, Nov. 13, to reconsider its decision. If councilors approve the ordinance as unanimously recommended by the Planning Board Oct. 17, Fryer will pull the petition, she said in an interview Nov. 2.
Cumberland has 36 registered farms, and 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.
But the Comprehensive Plan calls for town regulations to be modified so registered farms can be used for activities beyond farming, such as weddings and summer camps, in order to gain more revenue. That moved the Ordinance Committee to spend several months developing proposed ordinance language to allow such uses.
The use would have been restricted to farms of at least 5 acres in Rural Residential Districts 1 and 2, and would also have included existing farms in the Medium Density Residential district, such as Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards on Blanchard Road.
The ordinance would stipulate that farms could hold no more than eight events a year with town approval, and events would be capped at eight hours, excluding equipment set-up and breakdown. Amplified music would be allowed only between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., no louder than 60 decibels at the property line.
The Town Council would issue a business license, contingent on the farm’s annual compliance with the ordinance, to provide for input and feedback from neighbors.
Although councilors 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.
Councilors Shirley Storey-King and George Turner voted in favor. An amendment to cap weddings at five a year also failed.
Fryer said last week she had only sought four events, but other farmers called for more.
“Obviously we feel strongly that the Comprehensive Plan should be brought to life,” said Fryer, who sells flowers to Skillins Greenhouses, and provides them for events like weddings, funerals and birthdays.
“We just want to save the farms,” she added, noting the ordinance would allow her to host special events at her property – such as harvest-to-table dinners, weddings, and charities. She cannot purchase event insurance without such activities being allowed by the town as permitted uses, she said.
Farms are an increasingly popular venue for weddings, because they provide the rustic charm many couples seek, and produce extra income for farm owners.
Greg Sweetser’s family has been keeping its Blanchard Road apple orchard going since soon after the homestead was built in 1812. Sweetser’s income as executive director of the Ski Maine Association helps keep the operation alive.
“Farm weddings and farm events are really popular right now,” he said in an interview Nov. 3. “We have open space, we have buildings, we have room for tents, we have room for parking. The physical set-up is a natural to do it.”
“It does have the opportunity to generate significant revenue,” Sweetser added. “Being a seasonal business, you’ve got to pack all your income into, for us, July through mid-December.”
His family has tried to stretch the season to generate more revenue and maintain an expensive piece of property.
Responding to concerns about noise and traffic generated by activities such as weddings, Sweeter pointed to an alternative situation: extra traffic flowing to and from new subdivisions that crop up on open spaces.
“The overall traffic pattern is less to keep a farm as a farm than to increase the daily subdivision traffic,” he noted. “Because isn’t that really the alternative for all of our farms?”
When one looks to sell as many boxes of apples, or heads of lettuce, as possible to pay property taxes, revenue from “a couple of weddings is very, very helpful,” Sweetser added. “… If we could pay the taxes through a new revenue source, that would be huge.”
Town Councilor Tom Gruber said in an interview Nov. 3 that he would move at the council’s Nov. 13 meeting to re-open discussion of the issue.
“I feel that after considering it more and more myself … we didn’t have enough information,” he explained, referring to questions over the number of events a farm should hold. “I think having it open for re-consideration will prompt more discussion.”
Gruber, an advocate for Cumberland’s older population, noted that “if I’m using the Comprehensive Plan to promote affordable senior housing, how do I say, well, it applies here, but it doesn’t apply there? I have to be consistent; that’s where I’m coming from.”
Greg Sweetser, whose family has run an apple orchard in Cumberland since the 19th century, is a proponent of the town expanding allowed uses of registered farms to permit revenue-generating activities like weddings.