Upcoming Farm-to-Table Fundraiser at Millstone Farm–’Charitable Effort’ Could Challenge Town Hall
The question of what types of activities are permitted at Millstone Farm may be reawakened with plans for a fundraiser scheduled at the property for next week. A farm-to-table fundraising dinner that Millstone representatives say reflects the current owners’ support for the local community may challenge what Wilton officials say are regulations that need to be followed–and go against what several neighbors want.
Last year, Millstone tried to increase the number of special events that could be held at the farm in an application to Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission introducing ‘agrotourism’ to the town’s regulations. In the application, Millstone–a privately-owned working farm that has conservation restrictions on its deed set in an agreement with the town–sought to create a regulation that would allow “… (educational, recreational and entertainment activities conducted in conjunction with a working farm or agricultural operation) as a special permitted use in the single-family residential districts…”
The application generated significant community interest, primarily among neighbors and residents of north Wilton, at standing-room-only P&Z public hearings on Millstone’s application. While a handful of residents spoke in support of Millstone’s proposal, the majority were opposed to activities that could potentially increase noise and traffic at the farm. Some spoke of loud music played into the early morning hours during private weddings held at the property, as well as concerns about increased traffic in a residential area. After multiple public hearings on the application, Millstone Farm’s lawyer withdrew it.
Located in a two-acre residential zone, the 70-plus acre Millstone Farm operates under Wilton’s long-established land-use ordinances which permit farming. Previous owners Jesse and Elizabeth Fink, established much of what is on the current property, including commercial organic farming as well as educational and CSA-type programs. Over the years, the property was occasionally used for special events, including popular farm-to-fork dinners, weddings and other types of celebrations, such as fundraisers for local organizations. Those events were not permitted under the town’s current ordinances, but they happened anyway.
When the current owners, Volckert and Eliane van Reesema, purchased the property three years ago, they continued the farm’s practice of hosting events, including promoting such use on Millstone Farm’s website. When they applied for (and were granted) special permits to build an indoor riding ring and large horse stables (permitted for private use only), town officials notified the owners that they needed to comply with all other town regulations, which limited such special events to two per 12-month period and required sign-off on temporary event permits from multiple town departments, including police, health, fire, building, land use, and the first selectman, among others. Events, including regularly held farm-to-fork dinners ceased–until now.
Earlier this week, Millstone Farm emailed an invitation announcing a “new Fall Farm to Fork Dinner Series for the benefit our community.” The first dinner in the series is planned for Friday, Sept. 20 and is a fundraiser for the Mianus Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
The invitation says that the series is “in partnership with Geoff Lazlo Food,” and will offer “…new opportunities this fall to enjoy outdoor cocktails and dinners on the farm–all while supporting local charities in our community!” Tickets cost $160 apiece for the event, which is scheduled to run from 6-10 p.m. on Sept. 20.
But as of publication time, Millstone Farm has not sought any temporary event permit that town officials say would be required to hold the event in accordance with town regulations. Additionally, farm officials indicate that they question whether obtaining such a permit is even necessary–something that may be surprising, considering the farm had been considered in violation when it didn’t seek permits for past events, and that it had drawn intense criticism from neighbors during the application to increase special events at the location.
Millstone Farm: “We want to support the community.”
Millstone Farm officials say they have the best interest of the community at heart.
Farm manager Matt Motley was eager to answer GOOD Morning Wilton‘s questions about the possible challenge posed by the event. But he wanted to make sure that just as much attention was paid to what he said were the farm’s good intentions.
“I’d like to at least spend as much time talking about the charity we’re supporting, as opposed to some of the other stuff. Because I think ultimately that’s more interesting to the town,” he stressed.
In the past, non-profit organizations have secured the location to independently hold their own special event fundraisers there. The introduction of attaching a charitable organization to the farm-to-table dinner event concept at Millstone Farm is considered somewhat new. Previous farm-to-table dinners organized by Millstone Farm itself were billed more as culinary experiences that featured premier chefs and exclusive attributes.
Motley says those past dinners were still philanthropic.
“Those farm-to-fork dinners were always a charity event from our standpoint, and this is no different than it is today. It was really a pro bono deal for the chefs to come and showcase their events here and support [them]. One of the major reasons why the van Reesema family bought the property, because it was interesting and it had a community aspect to it. So we were clearly disappointed with the direction and the stance that the town took related to the farm-to-fork events, but understand the concerns of the neighbors,” he said.
But chefs aren’t non-profits or charities–a fact Motley concedes, but says the dinners were still meant to be something that reflected the new owners’ good intentions.
“Understood, but the insinuation was that Millstone was somehow getting rich off of these. That was the comments we heard in the open public meetings. Our point was, ‘Hey, we’re not running a commercial deal here. We’re donating it to somebody else.’ And given the fact that they sell out in 30 minutes, we assumed that the town liked it,” he explained.
He adds that there is no live music planned, and the activities planned for the dinner are “…pretty much in line with exactly what had happened here for 10 years while the Finks owned the property.”
The purpose, he stresses, is meant to be an event that supports a worthy local cause.
“It is an opportunity to learn more about the work that Trout Unlimited is doing here in Schenck’s Island. We picked that one for a specific reason, because it’s right here local in Wilton. Anyone who is making their way in around Wilton probably saw the excavators, probably wondered what is going on, and we hope this to be an opportunity for the community to learn more. And hopefully this generates further interest for the other legs of the plan for the Norwalk River.”
As of now there are only two events planned; Motley says a second charity hasn’t yet been chosen or a date secured, but it will happen later this fall.
He says that while he respects the neighbors’ concerns, “the commotion” turned an otherwise “farm which was open-to-the-public on some level” into something private.
Permit–Needed or Not
Whether or not a permit is needed may hinge on the operative word ‘private’ and how it’s interpreted: Motley says he doesn’t view the Sept. 20 dinner as one that is open to the public.
“It’s not open to the public. It’s been by invitation–which is folks who have been supporters of Millstone Farm either through CSA, or opted into the mailing list, or friends and family of either the van Reesemas or Millstone Farm. But if folks are interested, please feel free to reach out, and if tickets are available we can have a conversation about it,” he explains. He told GMW that the number of guests they expect is “50ish” and “may be a bit lower as it’s [on] a Friday and notice when out later than we had hoped.”
The event is listed on the Eventbrite website, says Motley, only as a means to process ticket buying. He called the invite list ‘curated’. He pointed out that it’s not listed on either the Millstone Farm or Geoff Lazlo websites.
The event page and is openly accessible through a search on Eventbrite–as well as on another event site Evensi–using search terms ‘Millstone Farm,’ ‘Sept. 20’ or ‘Wilton, CT’.
While Motley says it’s a private event, the town may see it differently, however.
Under Wilton’s zoning and land use ordinances, regulation 29-4.D.7 covers what is required to hold a special event, and where they are permitted; it also specifies that any property is limited to two such temporary event permits in one 12-month period.
According to Wilton’s town planner Bob Nerney, an event of the sort that is being planned at Millstone Farm would be one that would require a temporary special event permit.
“There may be larger crowds, or larger gatherings of people. When it’s an event that really involves outside entities, whether it’d be for profit, or nonprofit, or something being operated as a charity, it’s the inviting of the general public to come, there’s land use considerations that come into play. It might be traffic, it may be noise, it may be other types of issues that might have an impact. The regulations recognize this and limit that type of activity,” Nerney says.
As of press time, no representative from Millstone Farm has submitted any temporary event permit paperwork for signatures to either the P&Z department or the first selectwoman’s office–the last stop on the list of departments that need to give approval for such temporary permits. Nerney confirmed that Motley had inquired about a temporary event permit but had not yet submitted anything.
Nerney also confirmed he told Motley such a temporary permit would be required for the Sept. 20 dinner.
“That’s the way I left it with him was that, you’re allowed two events… Events of this nature are not intended to occur on a repeating basis, they start to create potential impacts to neighborhoods. It draws that delineation between an occasional event, in this case, no more than two in a years’ time, versus a repeating process that starts to potentially intrude upon the enjoyment that others have in our neighborhoods.”
Nerney also read an email he sent to Motley that said: “Other than the two special events allowed per year by way of the temporary event permit, I am having difficulty understanding how a potentially unlimited number of charitable charity events would align with the town zoning policy. The activity would seem to take on the characteristics and function of a charitable organization, a use which is not permitted in the town’s residential districts.”
Still, Motley maintains that it’s not so clearcut.
“We’re working closely with the town to understand whether this requires a permit or not. And it’s unclear to me. I mean, I certainly have no problem pulling a permit. And I’d spoken to Bob Nerney and discussed that matter explicitly with him. It’s just unclear to me whether or not that this requires one. I mean, if you were to host a charity event at your house, do you require a permit? And I think it’s an important question, and it’s not for me to answer. It’s really for the town to answer, and to understanding personal property rights and what people are allowed to do or not do. And again, it’s not for me to answer, it’s for the town and for the folks who make those decisions to answer,” Motley said.
According to Nerney, the difference between the kind of event he says the Sept. 20 Farm-to-Table dinner sounds like and something like a family wedding held at a private residence, is clear.
“We try to, in our fair way, delineate those distinctions, and we also try not to intrude upon rights of the association. People generally tend to have what might be get-togethers. Sometimes people have had weddings at their house, maybe a family member that’s getting married and they choose to do it at their house. But when you start having some these charitable events, that’s where I think there’s a distinction. Maybe there’s disagreement on that. I’m not the judge and jury and there’s a process for making further inquiry. I don’t know if it’s going to lead to that or not,” he said, adding, “I’ve put down my position, I think in a very clear and simple fashion and I just haven’t heard back.”
Motley maintains that, “Rest assured we will have whatever the town of Wilton requires as it relates to permitting. It’s unclear whether or not a permit is necessary for this, but if one is necessary, we will certainly have that in place before the event happens.”
Nerney said he has not issued any other temporary special event permits to Millstone Farm, and that this would be the first in any 12-month (or other) period.
Despite what seems like conflicting points of view with the town, Motley says Millstone Farm is trying to do something positive. Whether or not town residents and officials agree is up for discussion.
“Unfortunately, I feel like Millstone Farm has raised eyebrows in town as we sought…at the town’s request [to] make legal things that already had always occurred at Millstone Farm prior to us owning it. It came as a bit of a surprise to us that folks received it as if, ‘Hey, we invented this and we started doing this out of the blue,’ which certainly was not the case. And we’re really trying to work hard on our side to work with the town and repair whatever misconceptions there are about Millstone Farm. Our goal really here is to be good citizens in the community and to help various organizations out. And we’re interested in organic farming and teaching people about the environment and how to care for it and healthy ways of living their lives,” says Motley.
“Hopefully these farm-to-fork dinners allow people to not only access the farm and see what’s going on out here, but to have a healthy meal, to learn more about an organization that’s doing good in the community, and again, from an economic standpoint, it’s the same as it’s always been. We’re not making any money on these things. And now we’re actually directing it, or the chefs are directing it to a charity. So I think it’s good for everyone, and I hope that your article will help to represent what it is we are trying to do, because we’re trying to be good citizens over here.”