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After lengthy discussion at an April 21 public hearing, Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) members unanimously approved a zoning rule change that will allow The Farmers Market at Fairfield Hills to have “temporary food establishments,” thus permitting vendors to sell various prepared foods.
The farmers market sought that zoning rule change to boost attendance and spur business activity at the seasonal weekly market sessions. The market does business on Tuesdays from June to October on the northern lawn of Shelton House at Fairfield Hills.
At the hearing, Wes Thompson, a town Economic Development Commission (EDC) member, spoke on behalf of broadening the zoning regulations to allow prepared foods to be sold at the farmers market for consumption there and off the premises.
George Benson, town planning director, suggested that the revised zoning rules be enacted for a one-year trial period that would allow the P&Z to evaluate the rules’ effectiveness. If the revised rules prove successful, they could be made permanent, he said.
Mr Benson said a range of opinion exists on the wisdom of allowing prepared food sales at the farmers market. If the revised rules prove problematic, the P&Z could let the rules expire, he said.
Mr Thompson said he has contacted the town Health Department concerning health regulations affecting the sale of prepared foods.
The revised regulations will allow food vendors to operate either in a food truck or within a tent, Mr Benson said. Town permits would be required for food vendors.
P&Z Chairman Robert Mulholland said that food vendors who want to do business at the farmers market would need to apply to the market master to do so.
Mr Benson recommended that the farmers market be limited to three food trucks, but the number of food tents would not be limited.
More than three food trucks would be too many, Mr Benson said.
A trial period for the food rules makes sense because many questions exist on the effect that prepared food sales would have on the farmers market, he said.
Mr Thompson said the market’s intent in having prepared food sales is to increase the number of patrons attracted there and thus increase the market’s overall sales.
Mr Benson cautioned that it may take the market “a few years” before such increased sales materialize.
P&Z member Jim Swift noted that prepared food sales would generate litter at the market. Plans will be made for trash disposal, Mr Benson responded.
“I just think it’s a good thing to try [revised rules], and we’ll see how it works out,” he said.
During the public comment section of the hearing, Pam Buchler, the owner of Aquarian Caterers, LLC of Eden Hill Road, told P&Z members that prepared food sales at the farmers market would be beneficial.
Aquarian Caterers would sell vegan and vegetarian meals at a tent there, she said.
“It doesn’t have to be a scary concept. It can be a fun, healthy concept,” she said of prepared food sales.
Mary Ann Jacob of Mohawk Trail, who chairs the Legislative Council, told P&Z members that she was speaking as a private citizen, not a council member, in endorsing prepared food sales.
Ms Jacob said that typically farmers markets offer multiple products to their patrons, noting that the local farmers market has struggled. Allowing prepared food sales is “a low-risk option” that could aid the market, she said in endorsing the zoning rule change.
Sue Shortt of Shortt’s Farm and Garden Center at Riverside Road participates at the farmers market. Ms Shortt told P&Z members that that the decline in attendance at the Fairfield Hills farmers market occurred due to the presence of other farmers markets doing business in the area.
“We’re not looking to create a fair,” Ms Shortt said.
Ms Shortt said she will become the market master in 2017, succeeding current market master Mary Fellows.
The local farmers market wants its participants to be local businesses, Ms Shortt noted.
Selling prepared foods would help the market attract more business, she said. Ms Shortt predicted that the sale of prepared meals for consumption at home would be a popular item.
Ryan Knapp of Jeremiah Road, a Legislative Council member, told P&Z members that he was speaking as a private citizen, not a council member, in endorsing prepared food sales.
“I support this proposal…Please approve it,” he said.
Bill Brunetti, Jr, of Butterfield Road of Hog Wild BBQ, a barbequed meats catering firm, said that allowing prepared food sales at the farmers market would attract more patrons to the market.
Robert Rau, EDC chairman, spoke in favor of the proposed zoning rule change.
Following discussion, P&Z members unanimously approved a motion to allow temporary food establishments to do business at the farmers market with five conditions.
Those conditions require that a maximum of three food trucks be allowed at a farmers market session; trucks would be required to park on the paved parking area between Shelton House and Newtown Municipal Center; food truck vendors must register with the town at least two weeks before the first farmers market session; if there are more than three food truck applications, the market master would hold a lottery to determine which three trucks would be allowed to participate; and the revised zoning rules will be in effect for a one-year trial period.
Besides the P&Z, the temporary food establishments at the farmers market will be regulated by the town Health Department, as are other local eateries.
What is now The Farmers Market at Fairfield Hills began as an all-organic market in Sandy Hook Center.
The market started in a parking lot behind St John’s Episcopal Church on Washington Avenue, and was also temporarily located at the former Lexington Gardens site on Church Hill Road. It returned to St John’s, after which it gained permission to hold the market at Fairfield Hills.
In its first year there, the market was staged near the former main entrance to Fairfield Hills. During the following two years, it was positioned near Danbury Hall, a building which has since has been demolished. The market has been near Shelton House for the past several years.
The town-owned Fairfield Hills core campus is in the Fairfield Hills Adaptive Reuse (FHAR) zone. The P&Z allows a farmers market in the FHAR zone provided that complies with the state Department of Agriculture definition of a “certified farmers market.”
Local zoning rules state that such a market is “a seasonal outdoor event where items are offered for sale to the general public, [such as] fruits, vegetables, herbs, plants, flowers, eggs, honey, maple syrup, dairy products, jams, jellies and baked foods and seasonal items, including Christmas trees, cemetery baskets.”
Items offered for sale must be Connecticut-grown or made from Connecticut-grown produce. The farmers market is the only for-profit group regularly allowed at Fairfield Hills.