Planned restaurant on Woodstock farm faces procedural hurdles, ire from neighbors
|Published: 08-16-2021 10:31 AM
WOODSTOCK — Outrage, bewilderment and unpleasant name-calling are roiling Woodstock this summer in a dispute over a proposal to open a “barn-style” restaurant and sell other farm products at a 194-acre property outside of the village.
John Holland, who with his family runs The Holland Cos., a major Boston-based real estate developer, purchased what was formerly known as the Conklin Farm on Pomfret Road for almost $800,000 in 2012.
Holland uses the place as a weekend getaway. He renamed the property Peace Field Farm and subsequently tore down a 100-plus-year-old, 10,000-square-foot barn and invested millions of dollars to revive the picturesque setting near the Pomfret town line as a working farm.
The property is leased to Woodstock restaurateur Matt Lombard, owner of Mangalitsa, who raises produce, cattle, pigs and chickens there to source food for his restaurant.
The plan is for Lombard to relocate Mangalitsa from the village to the farm, in addition to using the facility abattoir.
Development projects in Windsor County are frequently an emotional issue, whether it is a mixed-use complex in Quechee, an “eco-friendly” church-related community for 20,000 residents in thte Strafford-Royalton area or, most recently, an off-road driving course at Suicide Six in South Pomfret.
Stymied by local residents and the Act 250 review process, many projects sit in limbo or never make it past the drawing board.
Holland’s proposal is far more modest than any of the those ideas, but it is nonetheless raising ire among neighbors along Pomfret Road, who are worried about the light, noise and traffic that would result from customers at the proposed 60-seat restaurant.
They are also irritated by what they characterize as Holland’s skirting of the regular permitting process.
“We were all for it when we first heard about it,” said Tom Meyeroff, a New York investor who acquired a 52-acre property that abuts Holland’s farm in 2017. Meyeroff and his wife moved to Woodstock full-time from Manhattan during the pandemic and hired a lawyer to fight the proposal.
“When we bought the place, we were told it was going to be a winery and for wine tasting, but plans kept changing,” Meyeroff said.
The current proposal, which includes parking for 70 vehicles and proposed dining hours of 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. during peak seasons, raises concern “whether an operation of this size should be in an agriculture-resident area,” he said.
Dave Nixa, who lives on a property across and down the road from Peace Field Farm, said the illumination at night is a nocturnal eyesore.
“There are 51 lights that face up. I know that because I counted them three times,” Nixa said. “It’s like Santa’s Village.”
Peace Field Farm is subject to two parallel permitting reviews that proceed independently of each other but must both be satisfied if the proposal is to move forward. One is conducted by the state’s Natural Resource Board District 3 Environmental Commission, commonly known as an Act 250 review; the other is by the town’s Development Review Board, which oversees zoning enforcement.
In Peace Field Farm’s case, the situation is a further complicated because it appears to be one of the first tests of Vermont Act 143, which was enacted in 2018.
The premise of the law was to offer a financial lifeline to small farms by allowing them to develop “accessory on-farm businesses” such as farm-to-table restaurants, as long as the food served is “principally produced” on that farm.
But lawmakers left it to towns to hash out the details, including what constitutes an accessory business, known as AOFBs, and how they should be regulated. And that has slowed down the permitting process.
Neal Leitner, Woodstock’s zoning administrator, said that when he began canvassing law firms to hire to advise the town’s Development Review Board with their questions, he was told “currently there is no case law for AOFBs in Vermont,” which is to say there are no rulings for Woodstock officials to rely on while crafting their own policy.
What’s more, although Holland was granted a building permit to erect — and subsequently built — a 2,592-square-foot “barn” on his Pomfret Road property by the town in 2015, he never applied for an Act 250 permit. That’s despite the state Natural Resources Board having exerted “jurisdiction” over the project in 2018, according to a notice of alleged violation the board sent Holland in April of this year.
In May, Holland finally submitted a post-construction Act 250 permit application but has argued in subsequent correspondence to the NRB that the board does not have jurisdiction over the project, because it falls under accessory uses permitted by Act 143. Holland maintains that his project falls under the authority of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
(In June, Holland sent a letter to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott requesting “the opportunity to speak with someone that has a clear understanding” of how accessory on-farm businesses are permitted.)
Recently, Holland hired a Burlington environmental attorney who specializes in “permit disputes.”
In a 12-page memo to the NRB, the attorney argued that Peace Field Farm did not fall under Act 250 “jurisdiction” until last September when the “barn style” restaurant reached a “finality of design.”
“That the applicants did not get an Act 250 permit at that time is due to the quite reasonable misunderstanding of the scope of Act 250 jurisdiction in light of Act 143 and the definition of development” under the Vermont statute, the attorney wrote, “a mistake the applicants are seeking to correct with the proceedings.”
The first public Act 250 hearing on Peace Field Farm was held in June, and a second is scheduled for September.
At the same time, the Woodstock Town Development Review Board, which has already held three public meetings on the matter, has “recessed” Holland’s application to review the permitted use of the site while the board awaits a legal opinion on the applicability of Act 143.
For now, the farm-to-table restaurant proposal is on hold until the state and town boards decide whether or not to issue permits.
In the meantime, the restaurant space inside the building — a commercial kitchen, granite-top bar, banquet seating and post-and-beams salvaged from a Rhode Island mill and a “blast freezer” for preserving meat raised on the farm — sits idle.
Although several Woodstock residents have posted testimonials on the town’s Listserv in support of Holland’s restaurant, his neighbors on Pomfret Road remain displeased over what they say has been his flouting of the approval process, forcing the project now to be decided on post-facto.
“He got a permit to build a barn. It’s not a barn. It’s never been a barn,” said Al Alessi, who has lived for more than 20 years across the road from where the structure has been built. “It’s like something McDonald’s built if it was building something it thought looks like a classic barn.”
(Leitner, the town planner, said building permits are granted based upon such things a structure’s setback from the road and height but not the “floor plan.” Permitted use is a separate application, which is currently before the Town Development Review Board.)
Holland, in an interview, said that adding a restaurant at Peace Field Farm is the only way to make the property sustainable as a working farm. He said he is confident the project ultimately will win Act 250 approval.
He also dismissed a comparison of his project to a nearby boondoggle: A decade ago, a developer sank $1.3 million into building a sugarhouse, gift shop and deli near the Joseph Smith birthplace memorial in Royalton. Like Holland, that developer sought an Act 250 permit after the structure was built, only to see the application repeatedly denied.
Today, the building on Dairy Hill Road, which was given the name “The Land of Joseph Sugarhouse,” remains vacant.
Last week, Holland struck a conciliatory tone, acknowledging that “some neighbors have reasonable concerns” about the lighting and noise, which he’s prepared to “mitigate.”
“I’m even willing to write in some performance review standards that we revisit in a few months” to review impact and compliance, he said.
As a Boston real estate developer and builder, Holland said, “I have some experience in getting things approved,” before reflecting, “obviously that hasn’t been the case in Vermont.”
Contact John Lippman at email@example.com.