By Brett Yates
Boston real estate developer John Holland finally got some good news regarding his embattled plan to open a “farm-to-fork” restaurant at the former Conklin Farm on the outskirts of Woodstock.
Less than a month after the Vermont Natural Resources Board’s District 3 Environmental Commission denied the project an Act 250 permit, the Woodstock Town Development Review Board (TDRB) conditionally approved Holland’s application for an “accessory on-farm business” (AOFB) at 650 Pomfret Road. Holland, who has appealed the earlier ruling, needs permission from both boards to move forward.
Although the would-be eatery still faces an uphill legal battle, the TDRB’s decision marks a victory for Holland, even as it imposes restrictions upon the proposed business. Under these stipulations, the restaurant would open five days a week (instead of six), until 10 p.m. (instead of 11), with a maximum capacity of 60 guests (instead of 88).
Holland’s application to the TDRB for site plan approval dates back to Sept. 17, 2020. Prior to the board’s long-awaited decision, he publicly speculated that the drawn-out process signified a “denial by delay.” A second-home owner in Woodstock, the developer reportedly had spent millions revitalizing his 190-acre farm and constructing a commercial kitchen, among other facilities, on site.
In 2020, Holland leased his rehabbed farmland to Matt Lombard, the owner of Mangalitsa, a small, upscale restaurant in downtown Woodstock. If Holland’s plan comes to fruition, Mangalitsa will relocate, in an expanded form, to the rural property from which it sources its vegetables, pork, and eggs, which Holland has rechristened Peace Field Farm.
Pomfret Road lies in a low-density zoning district, where Woodstock’s land use rules don’t normally permit restaurants. In 2018, however, Governor Scott signed Act 143, which barred municipalities from “prohibiting an accessory on-farm business at the same location as a farm” through their zoning regulations. The law aimed to clear a path for struggling farmers looking to add extra revenue streams.
But the state left municipalities with the responsibility to determine which projects fit the statute’s definition of an AOFB. According to the law’s text, “activity that is accessory to a farm” encompasses “the storage, preparation, processing, and sale of qualifying products,” of which more than half must be “principally produced on the farm at which the business is located”; and “educational, recreational, or social events” such as “tours of the farm, farm stays, tastings and meals.” It doesn’t mention restaurants specifically.
In Woodstock, the TDRB sought chiefly to determine whether the proposed restaurant would truly be “secondary or subordinate to the primary use of the property of the farm.” In other words, was Peace Field Farm the main business, or was Mangalitsa?
The board found Holland’s proposal too large to qualify as an “accessory,” but apparently not by much. The handful of constraints issued by the TDRB would scale down the operation slightly, whereupon the town would classify the restaurant as an AOFB.
“What appears to be the primary draw of the restaurant is that it is on the farm where the food came from,” TDRB Chair Don Bourdon concluded. “The farm and restaurant offers patrons the opportunity to eat food while looking upon the fields which primarily produced the food. Patrons will have the opportunity to tour the farm and learn about the agricultural practices.”
This decision hinged in part upon the applicant’s “stated plans for expanding the Farm’s food production to increase its dominance of the primary use over the planned accessory uses.” Currently, Lombard and seven full-time farm workers raise crops on just five acres (not counting hayfields), but according to the TDRB’s findings, the cultivated acreage will double upon Mangalitsa’s relocation, and the addition of a second “high tunnel” — a type of greenhouse — will allow for “the production of over 100 varieties of vegetables and herbs.” For now, “90 swine, seven cows, and 150 egg-laying hens” live at the farm, but the board noted Lombard’s intention “to grow the herd.”
Citing potential quality-of-life issues like increased traffic and intrusive lighting, neighbors accustomed to quiet on Pomfret Road have testified against Holland’s project before both the state and the town. Peace Field Farm also has a fair share of local supporters. The TDRB’s split decision reflected the divide in Woodstock, as three members voted in favor of the application and two against it.
“It appears that the restaurant and the farm are being developed in tandem as opposed to a restaurant being added as an accessory to an already existing self-supporting farm operation,” TDRB member Alan Willard wrote in a dissenting opinion. “According to testimony of the applicant, revenue from the farm operation was not available. The applicant was not able to identify any markets for farm products beyond the restaurant.”
Woodstock Zoning Administrator Neal Leitner observed “a lot of grappling and wrangling over Act 143” among the TDRB and Woodstock’s legal counsel in the lead-up to the board’s decision. He called the statute “incredibly complicated to navigate,” acknowledging that the town’s deliberations had “lasted a very long time” as a result.
“There’s no case law on this,” Leitner pointed out. “There’s plenty of accessory on-farm businesses that have been approved in Vermont; they just haven’t been contentious.”
For this reason, the fate of Peace Field Farm’s Act 143 permit may set an important legal precedent in Vermont. Although the TDRB ruling barred outdoor music and instructed Holland to install window treatments and a screen of Norway spruces to shield adjacent homeowners from the light emitted by the restaurant, Leitner guessed that the board’s approval would still face a challenge in a court from the farm’s neighbors.
As of Nov. 22, however, the town had yet to hear from the lawyer representing the project’s opponents. “I would think that it would be appealed, but maybe not,” Leitner said.
If an appeal materializes, it will go to the same place as Holland’s earlier filing, which aims to reverse the Act 250 denial: the Environmental Division of the Vermont Superior Court. The judge may ultimately hear both simultaneously, but the process will take time. Already it suffered one delay, when an attorney hired by the farm’s neighbors identified an erroneous statement in the District 3 Environmental Commission’s partial ruling from October, forcing the issuance of a correction, which served to deactivate Holland’s appeal temporarily.
Enacted in 1970, Act 250 empowers nine regional commissions, appointed by the governor, to review large development projects for environmental, social, economic, and aesthetic impacts. While Woodstock’s TDRB debated the narrow question of the restaurant’s status as an AOFB (subsequently setting “reasonable conditions” for its design, as “allowed under the standards and requirements for site plan approval”), the state’s District 3 Environmental Commission evaluated the proposal according to 10 sets of criteria.
Without offering definitive rulings on the first nine, it rejected the development at Peace Field Farm on the basis of the final criterion, which takes local and regional plans into account. The commission found that Holland’s proposal did not conform with the Woodstock town plan, which describes an intention to maintain a “balance of the natural countryside juxtaposed to the developed area of the village. Development and future growth are to take place in established growth centers, as it is here that the necessary infrastructure exists.”