Agricultural Tourism Dividing Some Rhode Island Communities

Some Rhode Island residents and municipalities don’t think concerts and weddings are appropriate accessory events for farms. It’s a complicated issue that has been addressed in several rural communities, in different ways. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Some Rhode Island residents and municipalities don’t think concerts and weddings are appropriate accessory events for farms. It’s a complicated issue that has been addressed in several rural communities, in different ways. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — Neighbors across Watson Reservoir from Sakonnet Vineyard were long used to an occasional solo performer or a small acoustic band playing the works of Simon and Garfunkel, if they even noticed the music at all. But wedding DJs playing Nicki Minaj late into the night is hard to miss.

“It used to be a guy playing a keyboard on the grass,” Burchard Avenue resident Natalie Eliason said. “Now there’s a concert stage and music blaring until 10 and 11 at night. You can’t put a fence around noise and light.”

The Alex and Ani Summer Concert Series began in 2015 with 13 Thursday night shows. The vineyard refers to the area where bands perform as a pergola. Neighbors, like Eliason, call it a stage. Since the vineyard was bought by Dionysus Acquisition LLC and Equity of Sakonnet Vineyard LLC in 2012, concerned residents claim that both the frequency and noise levels of events such as concerts and weddings have increased considerbly.

A 2015 vineyard concert. (Instagram/Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard)

A 2015 vineyard concert. (Instagram/Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard)

Eliason said the vineyard “went crazy” with events in summer 2015. Neighbors claim that summer the West Main Road operation hosted 29 weddings and 28 concerts, including the Thursday night series. In 2016, the number of concerts remained the same, but neighbors said the number of weddings dropped to nine.

After buying the property in late 2012, Carolyn Rafaelian, the founder and chief executive officer of Alex and Ani, changed the name to Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard. She also began advertising a vineyard concert series, including on an Interstate 195 billboard.

The October 2016 edition of Rhode Island Monthly noted that Rafaelian “ushered the winery’s transformation into more of an entertainment venue, where its seasonal concerts and Sunday jazz series are as big of a draw as the varietals.”

The vineyard’s added entertainment and the noise and traffic it has caused forced Eliason and her husband, Brian, to hire a lawyer, Christopher D’Ovidio.

“There are days I can’t work in my garden because the music is so loud,” said Brian Eliason who has lived at his Burchard Avenue home for nearly two decades. “I’d get a headache. Under previous owners you wouldn’t even know there was music. It wasn’t the commercial enterprise it is now. It became the Cape Cod Melody Tent overnight.”

Founded in 1975, the vineyard sits on 162 acres, 30 of which are used to grow the grapes used in the operation’s winemaking.

ecoRI News spoke with the Eliasons and three other concerned residents in early January at the home of Daune Peckham and husband George Purmont on West Main Road, a few miles down the street from Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard.

This group of residents and others in town are concerned that past and proposed entertainment activities at the vineyard violate the property’s deed to development rights regarding the protection and preservation of agricultural lands.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Rhode Island Agricultural Land Preservation Commission and the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust bought the development rights to 94 acres of vineyard land for $2.25 million.

Both vineyard neighbors and local residents are concerned that there is no pre-set limit to attendance, claiming that some concerts have drawn nearly 2,000 attendees — about half the year-round population of Little Compton. They mentioned the summer tour buses that enter and exit the property.

They’re also concerned about the current use of deeded land for parking, and the potential for that protected land to be paved over.

Longtime Haffenreffer Lane resident Larry Anderson said current vineyard operations are less about agricultural activities and more about commercial music events.

Anderson, who lives on the other side of town from Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard and isn’t impacted by the increased intensity of events being held there, is concerned about the precedent that could be set if the vineyard is allowed to host “non-agricultural uses that are arguably prohibited,” such as weddings and regularly scheduled concerts. He said if such activities become the vineyard norm, it would increase the likelihood that other agricultural properties in rural Little Compton could be developed in a similar fashion.

He said scheduled summer concerts on Thursdays and Sundays and seasonal weddings are vastly different than selling local produce and honey from a small stand, or even hosting an annual festival, such as the popular Little Compton Gratitude Festival.

“The vineyard explicitly promotes the Alex and Ani brand,” said Anderson, a past president of the Sakonnet Preservation Association. “They’re transforming a working vineyard into an entertainment center, concert and wedding venue that sells Alex and Ani merchandise. Wine has become secondary.”

According to Little Compton zoning ordinances, “Agricultural uses including the growing, processing, value added production, displays, education, promotion and sales of agricultural products including, but not limited to wineries.”

Agritourism on the rise
The issue of accessory uses on farms and agricultural lands is being hotly debated in many Rhode Island communities, and at the Statehouse. In fact, accessory farm uses is a growing trend nationwide.

Farming in Rhode Island, like just about anywhere else on the planet, is hard. It’s not an easy way to make a living, especially for small- and medium-sized operations competing against the handful of multinationals that control the global food supply.

A few bad seasons or prolonged drought can shutter a local farm. To help diversify an operation’s revenue stream, a farmer, as one example, could open a small roadside fruit and vegetable stand. During the next few seasons, the farm stand’s popularity grows, a small, permanent structure is built, and a light lunch menu is incorporated.

Over time, both traffic and noise generated by this accessory use increase. Parking is added and signs posted. Neighbors complain. Public hearings are held, and legal action taken. The farmer eventually decides to sell the land to a developer.

Since the 1940s, Rhode Island has lost more than 80 percent of its farmland to development, according to the state Department of Environmental Management.

In 2014, the General Assembly amended Rhode Island’s Right to Farm Act to include mixed uses of farms and farmlands, including such events as tours, petting zoos, hayrides and other “special events.” There is no mention of weddings.

Agricultural tourism is a commercial enterprise at a working farm, typically designed to generate supplemental income. Agritourism can include a farm stand, u-pick operations, a farmers market, farm stays, tours and classes, corn mazes and pumpkin patches, festivals, Christmas tree sales, weddings, farm-to-table dinners and barn dances, depending on state laws and local ordinances.

Rhode Island municipalities generally address proposed accessory farm uses on a case-by-case basis, because of the high number of variables, from concerns about public safety and environmental impacts to the type of add-on use being proposed.

These complexities, uncertainty in the approval process, lack of enforcement, and outdated, cumbersome and vague ordinances are conspiring to divide communities and create red tape.

In the past few years the Legislature has held committee hearings regarding the issue of enhanced farm operations, including a House panel that discussed whether to add weddings to the group of acceptable activities that can happen on designated farmland under the Right to Farm Act. The bill didn’t pass.

Another bill that failed to get approval sought to eliminate a municipality’s right to place restrictions on such events as weddings and concerts. Local ordinances and bylaws supersede the Right to Farm Act.

This past summer, a Washington County Superior Court judge ruled against a property owner who was holding weddings in violation of Exeter ordinances, as the town had argued.

The Portsmouth Town Council recently amended zoning ordinances to allow wedding receptions and other non-agricultural uses on farms, such as festivals and concerts, with a special-use permit granted by the zoning board. The change came after Greenvale Vineyards had filed a lawsuit to continue holding wedding receptions on its 73-acre farm overlooking the Sakonnet River.

Little Compton resident Carol Lynn Trocki, a Rhode Island Land Trust Council board member and a self-employed conservation biologist, told ecoRI News late last year that mixing agriculture uses with non-agricultural events on farmland can end up pitting corporate interests against community interests.

“There are plenty of weak zoning ordinances on the books,” she said. “Little Compton is scrambling to improve its ordinances so it can better control what’s happening in town. We’re too reactionary. Instead of always being on the defensive and feeling threatened by development, we need to determine what we want and be proactive in defining it.”

Trocki said Rhode Island’s cities and towns need to decide what they want their communities to look like now and 50-100 years into the future. She noted that the state’s more rural communities need to enact well-crafted ordinances if they want to protect their agricultural look and fell.

“Sakonnet Vineyard scaled up its events, built a bandstand and then lawyered up,” said Trocki, noting the difficulty volunteer town boards and commissions face when they go up against a “room full of 400-dollar-an-hour lawyers.”

The Eliasons live across Watson Reservoir from Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard. They say summer music from the vineyard often ruins the peacefulness of their backyard. (Courtesy photo)

The Eliasons live across Watson Reservoir from Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard. They say summer music from the vineyard often ruins the peacefulness of their backyard. (Courtesy photo)

Hired guns
In its fight against the Eliasons and their supporters, Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard is being represented by Adler Pollock & Sheehan, the same firm that is representing the Chicago-based corporation attempting to build a fossil-fuel power plant in Burrillville.

Purmont, a concerned West Main Road neighbor of the vineyard’s expanding operations, said few from Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard ever speak at local meetings or to agitated neighbors, just hired guns.

“Corporate pressure is their only form of communication,” he said.

The Eliasons said the vineyard’s attorneys show up at meetings with their own stenographer. “It’s been a show of force since day one,” Brian said. “It’s a money-making machine that could ruin the look and feel of this town."

He noted that this isn’t an anti-agriculture argument, saying "we’re against the bastardization of agriculture."

The Eliasons’ attorney, D’Ovidio, says the town concluded and the vineyard conceded in 1992 that concerts and weddings weren’t permitted. A Nov. 13, 2016 letter from Little Compton's zoning official, George Medeiros, to the Town Council president regarding vineyard activities verified that claim, stating “weddings and concerts are not accessories to uses to, and required for, the operation of the principal use and therefore are not allowed.”

The vineyard’s owners disagree. The matter is likely headed to court.

The Eliasons, however, aren’t fighting Carolyn Rafaelian alone. About 100 Little Compton residents, both year-round and part-timers from out of state, have joined the resistance, donating time and/or money to the cause. The group has so far spent about $60,000, according to Brian Eliason.

Opponents of Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard’s event intensification said they want their local farms and farmers to be successful. Noise generated by farm machinery is not their concern.

“We’re not trying to shut down farming. Farming is what we want,” said Anderson, who has a conservation easement on 15 acres (held by The Nature Conservancy) of his 20-acre Haffenreffer Lane property. “This isn’t about a bunch of cranky neighbors. Public interests are at stake. There’s a big difference between a 160-acre vineyard holding weddings and concerts and a farm selling heirloom tomatoes at the end of a driveway. We all could be hosting weddings and concerts.”