SALEM — Some call it meaningless, others necessary. But there's another word now going around for Maitland Mountain Farm's single-digit zoning request: Pickle-gate.
Cedarcrest Avenue-based Maitland Mountain Farm is pushing for the city to change agricultural-use zoning rules, specifically site size requirements, from 5 acres down to 2. The City Council and Planning Board launched a joint hearing to discuss the change last night, where a packed crowd sat through more than three hours of discussion and arguments on the issue.
Business owner Andy Varela has argued the change would give urban farms with fewer than 5 acres a shot at succeeding, and in the process pave the way for the business to get a building permit for a much-needed packaging house on the property. City Hall previously denied that permit on the grounds that the primary use of the site isn't agriculture.
The change stems from an urban farm-friendly policy the state pushed forward years ago that, to date, hasn't been adopted in Salem.
Speaking at the hearing last night, Varela said the business needs a packaging house to comply with U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration requirements. Pickles are among their biggest sellers.
"If I can't even comply in the next couple years with the FDA and USDA, we will go out of business," Varela said. "It's viable to sell (produce) on a local scale, but where we make revenue to keep the farm going is with our distributors. For us, that's about 80 percent of our use."
But while addressing the farm's history, city solicitor Beth Rennard said the issue Varela faced stems in the primary use of the site, which the city's inspection department determined isn't agriculture. Years earlier, the site also hosted music and tennis lessons, which Varela has said aren't taking place anymore.
Rennard also argued that the inspection department could act based on state law instead of local law, which sets the minimum at 2 acres. With that, changing it to 2 acres locally wouldn't help Varela get a building permit, she said.
Later in the meeting, Varela said the farm has 2.1 acres of "growing space" set up, and 2.34 acres of agricultural use. Several times, people attending the meeting pointed out that Varela could have appealed the building permit decision to the Zoning Board, which he hasn't done.
That sentiment was echoed later by Planning Board member Matt Veno, who argued Varela could either appeal the earlier decision or look into accessory uses.
But instead, "we're looking at zoning, which is the most blunt of tools we could possibly implement, which has implications across the city, across the map," Veno said. "I don't think that's necessary or applicable here."
Supporters: Protect ag legacy
Sixteen people spoke in favor of the zoning change, including local business owners and people who spoke in support of sustainability and local agriculture.
That included Al Snape, co-owner of Far From The Tree Cider, who said Maitland "comes and picks up my apple pumice."
"This service, to me, is valuable," Snape said. "I don't want to send my pumice to a landfill or up to New Hampshire."
Kylie Sullivan, director of Salem Main Streets and manager of the city's Farmer's Market, highlighted that Maitland Farms is "the only local grower" at the market each year.
"A lot of people have said or asked why it needs to change. I'd ask, why does it need to stay at 5 acres? We don't have properties in this city that are at 5 acres," Sullivan said. "We're not going to have any 5-acre farms coming along anytime soon. There's really no need for a 5-acre ordinance in this city."
Orchard Street resident Michelle Conway, recognized as triggering the so-called "ChickenGate" controversy years earlier, noted that her five chicken coop was shut down and cited by the inspection department as "farm operations."
Through that, she defended Varela not appealing to the Zoning Board, as she had to because of her coop.
"I also had to go through the ZBA process," she said. "So I also understand the expense of going through that."
Speaking moments later, East Collins Street resident Brendan Murphy highlighted Conway's example, saying that it "does seem odd that a four- to five -chicken use was deemed a farm, and a full-fledged farm that contributes to restaurants isn't."
Opponents: Maitland's a nuisance
Fewer people spoke in opposition, but one speaker spoke for several neighbors, and another presented a petition. Several also defended the Maitlands and their current operations, while saying their issue with the proposal concerns future uses of the property.
"I personally don't have any issue with what's being done on the property right now," said Valiant Way neighbor Scott Garabedian. "Is it an eyesore? Sure. Is there noise? Sure. My concern is changing an ordinance in the city because, as the gentleman (Veno) said over there, it's a very blunt object."
Cheryl Winter, of Cedarcrest Road, challenged the definition of a "farm" as it applies to Maitland, highlighting earlier comments about Maitland's pickles.
"We don't think they have the acreage to qualify, and their pickle-making business is really not a farm," Winter said. "It's just a business — turning cucumbers that get shipped in into pickles they package and ship out."
Alan Hoffman, of Valiant Way, thanked Snape for "the information that Maitland Farm is a dumping ground for apple waste." He argued that it attracts vermin and other wildlife nuisances.
Beyond that, "a commercial refrigeration building on-site, combining a processing plant with clam-shell and cellophane packaging and all the collateral that comes with a processing plant, is an impact," Hoffman said.
Elaine Slater, also of Valiant Way, returned the conversation to wildlife nuisances — in this case, discussing coyotes and turkeys she said are attracted to the farm.
"There's no sense of ill-will or anything else. What there is is a change in our quality of life. It has gone down," Slater said. "We don't want a packaging plant in our backyard, and we don't want it to expand."