Ambler Farm brought a proposal to Monday’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, seeking to expand the types of events it is allowed to host under the farm’s current special permit. Farm officials say they are in need of  additional revenue, for two reasons:  to operate the organization on behalf of the town’s obligation as spelled out in the deed and agreement with Ambler Farm Trust, and to expand what the farm can offer to the public.

But some of what is proposed has neighbors of the farm worried about a potential increase in noise and traffic. A handful of residents who live near the farm spoke to their concerns during the public hearing.

The attorney for Ambler Farm, Doug Bayer, explained how the Friends of Ambler Farm (FOAF) was formed in 2003 as a non-profit to manage the day-to-day operations of the farm on behalf of the town, which had signed a deed to the property in 1999, after Betty Ambler passed away. The FOAF undertook the responsibility of the deed’s requirements–to use the property for educational and agricultural purposes, promote Wilton’s agricultural heritage, and restore the buildings on the site.

To do so, the FOAF soon realized they would need to raise considerable funds, and in 2005-2007 sought a special permit from P&Z to allow limited activities, which included a set number of nighttime events that the farm could host–either by itself or other non-profits–and limited in size, hours and the number of guests. The current permit allows

According to Bayer, those events have helped FOAF raise money to enable them to manage and grow the farm.

“The Friends of Ambler Farm have raised money to restore the white barn, the red barn and has provided significant programming and activities, which the vast majority of people would say it has been a benefit to the citizens of Wilton,” he said.

Currently, that permit allows the farm to have up to six special events per year of not more than 100 people; the FOAF want to increase the limit to a maximum of 10 special events a year with up to 200 people. The application also seeks permission for the farm to allow private organizations and individuals to hold events, and expand the types of events allowed to include antique shows, craft shows and weddings.

He said that there would be no changes to other restrictions to existing provisions in the special permit, including lighting, parking, or hours of operation. “Basically we’re looking to take the parameters that the commission has already imposed, and simply allow different people and slightly larger events.”

Bayer explained that Ambler Farm is seeking changes to the special permit because additional revenue is needed, and the request is being driven by two things:

  1. The Raymond Ambler House is about to undergo substantial renovation. Once that building is finished and open, the operating expenses will go up significantly in relation to the farm’s current budget.
  2. For years, FOAF has been operating with no legal relationship with the town. There have been recent conversations to formalize that in a public-private partnership agreement. Going forward, there would no longer be any contribution from the town for ongoing operating expenses. Right now the farm is self-sufficient, but with an increased need for funding, the FOAF need to generate more revenue as a result.

Robin Clune, Ambler Farm’s executive director, explained how much is involved in running the farm, saying, “It takes a lot of work to meet and exceed standards by building a town treasure.” Among the things she listed:

  1. a portfolio of activities–agriculture, growing 40 varieties of crops, and sell vegetables and produce at their own farmstead and the Wilton Farmer’s Market
  2. maintaining the property as open space–caring for 18 acres, six buildings, historic stone walls, mature trees so that the public can utilize the fields for their original purpose and to “ensure the gorgeous views stay that way.” She noted that care for the buildings, including restoration and management of historic buildings, is expensive. The total cost for the restoration of the Raymond Ambler House will be approximately $2 million, about half of which has been spent thus far since 2010. The FOAF has raised $780,000 toward continued renovation of the interior of the house and they anticipate needing $400,000 more. The house will provide a flexible space, allowing the farm to promote sustainable use, and preserve and learn about the history of Wilton.
  3. offering programs, most of them educational–”We teach by doing.” These include the apprentice program; the summer program; being a field trip destination for local schools; farming and gardening programs; a program for special needs families; the maple syrup program; and a nutrition and food donation program in conjunction with Wilton Social Services and the Wilton Food Pantry
  4. hosting Ambler Farm’s own special events and activities–a Valentine’s Tea, the Summer Hoedown, Ambler Farm Day, the Holiday Greens Sale, and a spring fundraiser–all of which are social, community-building events.
  5. being one of Wilton’s most prized amenities for residents and attractions for out of town visitors. “We’re not a club–they’re not just visiting Ambler Farm, they’re visiting the Town of Wilton.”

Changing the restrictions on the special permit would allow Ambler Farm to rent the facilities to private individuals at a higher rate than what is currently charged to non-profits, Clune explained. The same guidelines now in place for any events hosted at the farm would be maintained for anyone renting the property–guests would have to leave the farm by 11 p.m., lights would be extinguished by 11:30 p.m., and nothing would have to change with regard to what the farm currently holds in insurance.

Clune also said that the FOAF make a diligent effort to reach out to neighbors and they work to minimize any inconvenience caused by parking and noise. She said there has not been an issue in the past with regard to noise or light complaints, and capacity limits are set. She noted that current parking issues at the Ambler soccer field is something under the jurisdiction of the town, the Parks and Rec Department, and Wilton Soccer–not Ambler Farm.

As for parking on the farm, she said that there was adequate space on the property for the proposed limits and that she has turned down requests for events that she believed would exceed or run counter to the Farm’s mandate.

She later pointed out that under the current special permit, Ambler Farm is allowed to host four events a year of its own–Ambler Farm Day and three others–with numbers that exceed the 100 person limit. “There’s no difference between a non-profit event and private event for 200 people.”

Among the questions asked by some of the commissioners were questions about what the reasoning to change the permit would be from a land use perspective–rather than just the business model argument being made. Bayer suggested several, including the fact that if the FOAF cannot continue to fund the operational expenses, the town would likely not be able to fulfill the obligations it has under the deed–which would allow the Ambler Trust to potentially purchase it back, with no restrictions on how the property might be subdivided.

He also noted that it would be a considerable expense for the town to come up with $1.2 million to restore the Raymond Ambler house, and dedicate man-hours and personnel required to operate the farm. “The farm has become a treasured resource for Wilton, it’s a reason that people move here and enjoy living here, it’s a prideful organization for the town. Even if the town were to restore the buildings, you’d lose what has been built by the FOAF. The organization puts in countless hours, and provides tremendous service to the town, and to toss that aside would be a mistake for governance.”

During public comment, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice spoke in favor of the application, and said that Ambler is a significant town asset that “features prominently in how the town and residential realtors market Wilton.”

“The work of the Friends of Ambler is a legacy that should remain for many generations regardless of the economic conditions of the town or the state. As the applicant has stated, there have been discussions with my office to document our relationship, which in my opinion, should have been done years ago to protect the interests of the Town. We expect to have the same type of public partnership as we have with the Wilton Library Association. I very much agree with their assessment that they require additional avenues to raise monies to sustain the farm for the future. The type of events would not be unlike what is afforded to the Garden Club which manages Old Town Hall which is also located in a residential zone.”

She also called the FOAF a good Town partner.

“Had these property not been turned over to their stewardship, I can say with confidence that the property would not be what it is today. With FOAF as the managers and town ownership, we aren’t likely to have the non compliance concerns that can exist with a private property.”

Neighbor Questions, Concerns

Neighbor Michelle Dunn was one neighbor who spoke, in clear opposition to the proposal, saying she led similar  opposition to when FOAF applied for a special permit in 2007. She encouraged the commission to thoroughly review all the documentation from that application “to get an idea of the intensity of opposition.”

“I find it surprising and extremely disturbing that planning regulations can become dismissed, the same concerns that were made and established are still present today. Any additional change does not help us–it may help the FOAF but it does not help the neighborhood. Ambler Farm is doing quite well with the multitude of activities, which all take a toll on the neighborhood. Every single AFD, Ambler Lane is jam-packed, I have called the police, there’s barely enough space for ambulances or fire trucks,” she said.

Dunn said the increase in traffic and noise would be substantial from any events hosted at the farm.

“How irresponsible to ignore safety and traffic issues to children and the neighborhood; it’s counterproductive to ignore historical legacy. [The original] intent was open space, conservation and for protecting the agricultural legacy of this community. That was bought and paid for, why should it be changed now for developing a business model?”

Dunn also questioned the motivation behind the proposal, and said she would seek legal recourse if necessary. “I will fight this legally…I will do my darnedest to make our voices heard, our ability to have our needs known. [The decision] should be based on the citizens rather than those trying to change and hurt what this town is supposed to be about.”

William Gallagher, a neighbor who says he believes that the property is very well run and a great town asset under the management of FOAF. Still, he called the application “too expansive” and that noise and traffic from nighttime events “goes beyond what should be permitted in a residential area.”

That was echoed by neighbor Richard Thorogood, who said that it’s been great to see the progress at the farm in the last 10 years, but that the current proposal “is taking it too far.” Opening up to profitable events changes the tenor for what the property was designed for… the idea makes it much more commercial, and further away from agrarian principles. In 5-10 years time it could become a more commercialized venue, rather than an example of a living farm at the heart and heritage of Wilton.”

Neighbor Stephen Fogerty took issue with questioning the motivation behind the proposal. “I don’t think there’s any reason to question people’s motives, or do anything other than thank the people who have made the farm a beautiful place, donated their time, it’s a remarkable place.” But he cautioned that P&Z commissioners should take time to be careful in their decision making. “I trust the people at FOAF, they have done a great job running. But we’re moving into an area not fully explored. I’d encourage you to give careful consideration, just hear people.”

Others who spoke and encouraged caution included Hannah Kinnersley, who worried about excessive noise that might come from events, and Carrie Brady, who wanted to ensure that the public would continue to be able to access the property, regardless of events that would take place. She suggested restricting where on the property events could take place so that residents would always be able to access the farm, or risk changing the intended use. “Give consideration that Ambler remains open to residents, what’s most important is to keep it open as a community resource. We need to make sure we protect the programs.”

Chris Beach, who lives close by the farm on Ambler Lane wants to guard the “spirit of the place as it stands at the moment.” “The risk is not around the immediate future so much, or the people running it at the moment, but the decisions we make around this will not stand as they are. In 10 years will it still be used in the same way? I don’t know and that worries me.” He also noted the noise that comes from private events held at the nearby Rolling Hills Country Club–”It’s incredibly loud, I can feel the amplifier thump”–and worried about potential noise from events at Ambler Farm. But he acknowledge some ambivalence:  “That said I have mixed feelings, I want to make sure they can continue providing the services they do.”

There were also supporters of Ambler’s proposals.

Marie Donahue, a lifelong resident who has volunteered significant time with Ambler Farm, starting right after the town purchased the property. “I am in support of their application, what they do they will do right. They have good planning, great committees.”

Current board member and former board president Neil Gluckin stressed this point. “We take our responsibility very seriously, we think of ourselves as members of town governance process. We’re here not to petition to allow us to become an event company. That’s not our intention. The numbers we’ve been using because they’re required by the process, makes it sounds like we’re going to have 200 people every weekend. We care deeply about that property, it wouldn’t be what it was today if we were wanton in our use of it. That’s the furthest from our mind. I want to disabuse you that we can’t wait to throw the place open to wild partying. We feel that there will only be a few private events available during our very busy calendar, and a fairly high cost attached and fairly stringent requirements is going to be a very powerful selection factor in who comes and who we’d accept to be users of the farm.”

Barbara Geddes Wooden suggested that exploring other ways to approach the concerns raised by neighbors might be an option. “I hear their concerns, this is an opportunity for innovation. There are lots more interesting ways to park, toilet and trash that are green and sustainable. In 2019 there are better ways to do this.

The public hearing has been continued to the next meeting of the P&Z Commission, on