CHARLESTOWN — Quonnie Farms owner Stephen Peet, who operates a farm stand on an 8.3-acre property at 16 West Beach Road at the corner of Route 1, has applied to the Charlestown Planning Commission for approval of a major expansion. The commission heard his pre-application presentation on May 22.
Peet explained that he intended to expand both the scope of his business and its months of operation.
“We’ve had a farm stand there for probably 20 or 25 years,” he said. “The operation starts in probably mid or late June and goes on till sometime in September.”
Peet told the commission that the farm stand was not sustainable because the farmers growing the produce were working only part time and earning only two months of revenue per year.
“We’re going to lose the farmers,” Peet continued. “We want to create a business that is more sustainable, not year round, but we’d like to open the business in May, maybe selling plants and flowers for gardens. We would then move into June, July and August when we’ll be selling fruits and vegetables like we currently are, and then in September, we move into things like mums and pumpkins and apples and cider and then as we get deeper into the fall season, Christmas trees and wreaths and that kind of thing, if we can make that work.”
Peet is proposing a 3,600-square-foot post and beam barn, which would include 1,200 square feet of retail space.
“As a farm in the state of Rhode Island and the town of Charlestown, it is not a variance we’re asking for,” Peet said. “This is something that, in the local zoning regulations, we have the right to build a no larger than 1,200-square-foot farm retail building. We’d like to do that.”
The proposed expansion would also include a kitchen for the preparation of baked goods and canned goods that would be sold at the retail outlet.
The pre-application follows another plan, proposed for the same property about a year ago, for a hops-growing and craft beer brewery and restaurant. The proposal, opposed by neighbors, was rejected by the Planning Commission.
Peet said that while the expansion is permitted by right, he wanted to present the plans to the commission to get members’ feedback.
“We have a history in the last year or so of maybe ruffling some feathers and we wanted to make sure everyone was cool with the concept before we go forward, and after this meeting, we would hope to engage our very professional and brilliant architect as well as engineers to get the project going,” he said. “Our plan would be to start construction in September and hopefully have a bigger, better farm stand open for business in the spring of next year.”
Project architect Megan Moynihan provided details of the plan, which would entail clearing a section at the southern end of the site to grow fruit and vegetables, and reconfiguring the greenhouses.
“We’re going to relocate some of the existing greenhouses and build two new, additional greenhouses,” she said. “So eventually, we may put up five greenhouses at this location.”
The Coastal Resources Management Council has already approved the addition of a footpath that would traverse a wetland and connect the two sections of the property, Moynihan said.
“We have spoken with CRMC and they are amenable to connecting the north end of the site and the south end of the site with a walking path so that the farm staff can walk through … but that would be a private path, only for the use of staff,” she said.
Commission members raised questions about the possible use of pesticides and herbicides at the site, as well as lighting and signage.
In a May 16 memorandum to the commission, Town Planner Jane Weidman recommended that the combined master/preliminary plan be approved if stormwater management, parking and lighting issues are addressed and the wetland on the property is clearly marked to prevent damage or encroachment. A section of the property that lies in a floodplain would also have to be clearly marked.
Weidman wrote that “the building meets the town standards of traditional architecture and scale, and will likely be an enhancement to the area.”
Commission alternate Ruth Platner said the application would be heard as a combined master and preliminary plan.
“That just means that it all happens in one application rather than splitting it up into two,” she said. “For a small building like that, it’s very usual for us to combine them, so the vote that we would take now is just to combine them into one application.”
The commission approved a motion to hear the proposal as a combined preliminary and master plan, but many residents expressed disappointment that they had not been given an opportunity to speak.
Commission Chair Sherry Krupka told the audience that while their comments could not be heard at that time, they were encouraged to address their comments and questions to the commission in writing.
Public comments and questions will be heard at a future hearing, when the commission has received a more detailed application.
“I think you need to address the issues they brought up and come in with a more complete application that meets the requirements for a preliminary plan,” Weidman told Peet. “We can collect all of the comments from the public and send them to your team well in advance of any further comments from the Planning Commission.”
Weidman added that the planning department staff would be available to discuss the formal application with the developer before it is submitted.