A controversial draft ordinance that would allow market gardening under conditional use on certain properties in Chatham Township’s R-1 district has been revised and sent back to the Chatham Township Committee by the township Planning Board, bringing the ordinance a step closer to being submitted for passage into law.
A heated topic for months, the proposed ordinance was not seen by the Planning Board to have any inconsistencies with the township’s Master Plan as of yet, which protects both the predominant single-family homes throughout the township, as well as what little farmland the township has left.
Still, the township has found it difficult to have residents agree to a compromise on the issue, despite its best efforts.
“I’m trying to find how, in this ordinance, we might satisfy both constituencies,” said Planning Board member Thomas Browne at Monday's meeting. “How we might make it possible to let people do what they want to do, and for the people who don’t want it, make it so it won’t grow into something that would become their biggest nightmare.”
Many residents came out in opposition of the proposed ordinance, citing concerns for the safety and residential integrity of the Green Village portion of the township, which would be affected by this ordinance if it were to pass.
Jessica Lakin, a township resident who lives on Green Village Road, spoke out against the ordinance under the assumption that those may step beyond the bounds of a “market garden”, which only allows for sale of produce off-premises, and may operate a landscaping or farming business directly on the property.
“How are you to differentiate whether someone has a market garden or whether they’re running their landscaping business out of their home,” questioned Lakin. “These are the holes that we see, and it becomes even more astonishing to me every week that no one seems to see them or be able to respond in a way that addresses—really addresses—our concerns.”
“I don’t see where your leeway is in laying this out as a conditional use ordinance, and I think that our concerns about this are that you are setting a precedent or an opening an avenue for all of these things to happen, and then it’s out of your hands and there’s nothing that can be done at that point,” continued Lakin.
Several Planning Board members, included chairperson Lydia Chambers, stated that the differences between supporting a landscaping business on a property permitted to have a market garden and hiring outside help to help harvest the crops for outside sale do exist, however minute they may seem.
“I get that there’s a fine line that could be crossed, and it might be difficult to tell. There is a fine line, but I don’t think, by definition, we’re saying that it matters whose tractor is plowing the field,” said Chambers. “What we are saying is if they’re running a business, and trucks and people are coming and going relating to the landscaping business, then that’s totally unacceptable, and this is not allowing that.”
Planning Board members have said in a previous meeting that running a landscaping business from within the R-1 residential district is already prohibited, unless the business was grandfathered in.
Resident Dan Miller, a market gardening enthusiast who is in support of the proposed ordinance, compared his right to hire an outside company to pick produce to any resident’s right to put an addition on his or her private home.
“I think this ordinance is quite clear and quite well-written with what it says about what shall not be a lawn and landscaping business, and I also appreciate the statements made that I can hire anybody I want to work on my property,” Miller said. “If I want to hire guys to come in and pick produce, I have a right to do that, just like anybody else has a right to have someone come in and put in a patio or an addition on their home.”
“The insinuation that everybody’s out to do something shady is quite offensive, and has been offensive for many months now,” Miller said.
Miller sees the proposed ordinance as an opportunity for some of the township’s open space to be kept open, all while giving the township a chance to regulate activities that may already be happening without regulation.
“Farming is an enhancement to the town, subdivisions probably aren’t. So to sit and take apart what someone wants to do as far as farming, the only change from what I am allowed to do right this moment on this property is that I want to bring a truck a couple times a week, throw the stuff on there and sell it down in Madison at the market garden,” said Miller. “That’s the only difference from what I can do already. What an opportunity for you guys to govern it some.”
Christopher Struening, another Green Village Road resident who is opposed to the proposed ordinance, is concerned with the negative impacts the ordinance itself states may be associated with farming.
“Do we really have to go much further past that? You’re already telling me that it has a negative impact,” Struening said. “Why should I be for anything that has a negative impact? It’s a residential neighborhood; keep it residential.”
Among Struening’s concerns are the use and disposal of chemicals used in organic farming, and how they might affect the surrounding neighborhood—or even worse, violently react with other organic elements, such as water.
“Trust me, I’m a hazmat tech; I know what these chemicals do and what the reactions are. I know for a fact that Chatham doesn’t have a hazmat team,” Struening said. “Chemical reactions can happen with organics; in fact, organics are some of the worst chemicals to deal with, because they have nuances. You can’t use other organics to fight organics.”
Struening is also concerned with another facet of safety: general neighborhood safety. If outside contractors are hired to assist with market gardening operations, he and other residents believe that people unwanted in the neighborhood could find their way in on a regular basis.
“If I’m putting an addition on my house and I want to hire a contracting company, so be it. Let me hire the contracting company I want, but I’m not hiring a different contracting company every month, every three months or every six months. You’re creating cyclical business when you hire people to come in and farm your land for you,” Struding said.
“I work a rotating schedule. I leave my wife and my kids alone; once every four days, I’m not at the house. How do I know who’s being brought onto some of these properties? These are concerns I have,” Struening said.
Although the Planning Board has found thus far that the ordinance is not inconsistent with the township’s Master Plan, that ruling could change after the Township Committee sends the final draft back to the board for review.
“The time to decide (for good) that it’s not inconsistent with Master Plan would be the time that they send us the ordinance back,” said Township Planner Frank Banisch.