Proposed urban farm zoning change triggers showdown

Ken Yuszkus/Staff photo Andy Varela checks the broccoli rabe, bier radishes, and lettuce greens in one of the greenhouses at Maitland Farm in Salem. 

SALEM — The #Pickle-gate saga may have reached its end.

City councilors on Thursday shot down a change to city zoning rules that would have supported urban agriculture by knocking a lot-size requirement down from 5 acres to 2. The change was based largely on updated state rules that have not been adopted locally. 

The zoning change was launched by Maitland Mountain Farm, which wants to build a packaging house on its Cedarcrest Avenue property. That effort was shot down by city zoning officials, who determined the site’s primary use is not agriculture.

The #Pickle-gate tag on the saga stems from the popularity of Maitland’s pickled products, which have received praise from public officials and even opponents of the zoning change throughout deliberations.

Supporters have argued the change would help to support the local business, while opponents have said a packaging plant in a residential neighborhood would be a nuisance.  The farm’s neighbors are almost universally opposed to the change, according to Ward 7 Councilor Steve Dibble.

Many city officials have also pointed out that changing the zoning wouldn’t remedy the problem for the Maitlands, because their permit was denied for other reasons — not because their property is only 2 acres.

The Planning Board came out of a joint public hearing on the issue saying the City Council should deny the immediate request to change the zoning, but recommended approving it as part of a larger zoning package later on.

“If we’re going to look at this, if we’re going to adopt it to mirror the state ordinance, you’d want to adopt from-5-to-2 (acres) and all the other provisions of the state ordinance,” said Ward 1 City Councilor Bob McCarthy. “Their recommendation is to deny, because it’s just the change from 5 to 2 without adopting everything else.”

Dibble brought in a separate order requiring the city’s planning director and legal department “to consider and develop amendments ... to allow for a special permit provision relative to agricultural use.” The Maitlands’ property is in Ward 7.

That would bring recommendations back to the City Council for approval, according to the order. It was approved unanimously.

Still, Maitland supporters and opponents had their voices heard Thursday night.

“Our condo directly abuts the Maitland property, and as I understand it, I don’t have a problem with them raising vegetables on their land,” said Valiant Way resident Larry Slater. “The issue is that they’re going to be having a manufacturing plant, or they want one.

“This is a business, not a farm, and I don’t look forward to looking out my living room windows and seeing a (packaging) plant there in my residential neighborhood.”

Jeff Cohen, a Hancock Street resident, argued that Maitland Farm is actually a farm, and that there is no successful farm “that doesn’t have some sort of processing facility on the premises.”

“It’s within the parameters of a building that’s about the size of a garage,” Cohen said. “They’re the only urban farm we have in Salem, and I believe they’re a great constituent, neighbor and small business for us to support.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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