The Oenoke Ridge Road homeowner whose property is the subject of a neighbor’s zoning appeal is, in fact, not a farm under the state’s definition of the term, according to New Canaan’s advising town planner.
Though the McQuilkins of 757 Oenoke Ridge Road keep egg-laying chickens and fur-bearing alpacas, they’re not taking those commodities to market for direct sale, Steve Kleppin said in a memo issued ahead of Monday night’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting.
The ZBA is expected to discuss an appeal brought by the McQuilkins’ neighbors, Peter and Kathy Streinger, who argue that the keeping of animals and equipment rises to the legal definition of ‘farming’ and requires a special permit.
In his advisory comments sent ahead of Monday’s meeting to the ZBA, Board of Selectmen and town attorney, Kleppin notes that “the McQuilkins have on occasion sold eggs from a farm stand on Oenoke Ridge as indicated in the photographs provided.”
“I have instructed the McQuilkins that the sale of or bartering of eggs or other products, whether sold on the property or elsewhere, would constitute farming and require a special permit. They have agreed that they would not sell or barter items produced on the property and would seek a special permit should they decide to do that. A logical question is what do you do with the eggs produced and if you keep several dozen eggs in your refrigerator is that ‘storage’ as referenced in the statute? If Mrs. McQuilkin sheers the alpacas and knits a sweater? If Mrs. McQuilkin sheers the alpacas and knits a sweater, is the storage of the wool or the making of an item storage of production, respectively? The answer to that is emphatically, no. It is very common, even in lower Fairfield County, for people to keep chickens and give their eggs away for example.”
The ZBA this summer unanimously denied a separate appeal brought by the Streingers, which focused on the McQuilkins’ use of an accessory structure as a guesthouse.
In reaching his conclusion under the active appeal, Kleppin pointed to a governing state statute that defines agriculture and farming in Connecticut—and offers a different read from the Streingers, who had cited the same law in making their own argument.
Specifically, Kleppin said, “the activities occurring at the subject property do not meet this definition, nor do any of the other numerous properties in New Canaan that have animals on their property.”
“The key phrasing in the definition that is relevant to this application is ‘handling, planting, drying, packing, packaging, processing, freezing, grading, storing or delivering to storage or to market, or to a carrier for transportation to market, or for direct sale any agricultural or horticultural commodity as an incident to ordinary farming operations, or, in the case of fruits and vegetables, as an incident to the preparation of such fruits or vegetables for market or for direct sale.’ ”
Kleppin continued: “Prior to that section, the statute describes a very long list of activities that may be farming, including the activities being conducted by the McQuilkins. However, the area I have highlighted clearly states that these activities, including the activities being conducted by the McQuilkins must take the commodity and bring it to storage, to a market or for direct sale.”
The Streingers live at 785 Oenoke Ridge Road, a 4.32-acre property located directly east of the McQuilkins’ and accessed by a driveway that runs along the latter’s northern property line. The McQuilkins occupy an 1886-built home known as ‘Crajah House’ and their 4-acre property includes a number of antique outbuildings, as well as a paddock for five alpacas that fronts Oenoke Ridge Road.
In New Canaan, ordinances that govern the keeping of animals are laid out in Chapter 6 of the Town Code. The New Canaan Zoning Regulations in defining ‘farming’ defer to Connecticut General Statutes 1-1(q).
The Streingers in making their appeal cite all three documents.
Yet, according to Kleppin, their claims are “directly contrary” to the findings of a town sanitarian, New Canaan health director and sanitarian from Norwalk who had been brought in for a second opinion.
“In addition, the McQuilkins requested that the State Department of Agriculture conduct an inspection of the property to assess the practices they employ,” Kleppin said. “The state findings are consistent with the other three health officials who visited the site.”
Kleppin added that the McQuilkins’ use of their property, with animals they refer to as pets, is not unique in New Canaan.
In fact, he said, if the ZBA were to conclude that the McQuilkins are “farming” and require a special permit, it will “ultimately lead to a rash of other properties in violation of the zoning regulations.” He listed nine properties where residents have animals such as chickens, ducks and horses, and one where there are apples.
“These are just some of the locations where land use staff has observed animals on residential property,” he said. “Obviously, there are more than this because these are only properties that had land use permits or pending applications, so other properties with animals such as chickens who had no existing or pending permits would most likely not be noticed by staff.”
He added: “We have all seen working farms at one time and if we think about it, the beautiful outbuildings, fencing and landscaping on the McQuilkin property are rarely, if ever, found on working farms. The most recent working farm I can recall in New Canaan was the horse farm now occupied by Grace Church and calling that a farm is a stretch considering the manicured nature of those facilities.”
A former New Canaan town planner who is serving as an advisor to the ZBA and Planning & Zoning Commission on a number of active and complicated matters, including this one, Kleppin also found fault with an argument from the Streingers that the McQuilkins’ use of their own property was negatively impacting real state values in the area.
Though the Streingers presented an opinion from New Canaan’s assessor as a finding in favor of their case, Kleppin noted that the findings were based not on an on-site inspection but rather on photographs. Further, the assessor’s statement has “zero merit” because it’s unclear just which photos were shown or when they were taken, Kleppin said.
In an email thread cited by Kleppin, the assessor himself appears to discover that updated photos tell a very different story.
“My opinion was based on pictures supplied and not from a current site visit,” the assessor wrote. “Recently I have been told and shown pictures of the current status of the property and I found no issues or external obsolescence that can cause a decrease in value due to its unpleasant view as I stated in an email that was presented with the appeal. My job is not to be a mediator and involved in neighbor disputes and I will not be involved. if there are issues with values caused by external forces or other forces a taxpayer should obtain their own professional to analyze the events taking shape and obtain their opinion regarding its effects on value.”
Kleppin advised the ZBA members to inspect the property in person.
One direct neighbor already has submitted a letter in support of the McQuilkins, available in the public file at Town Hall.
Mary Ellen Kranzlin of Oenoke Ridge Road noted that the property next door in 2003 had donkeys and ponies on it.
“I have absolutely no issues with the activities occurring at 757 Oenoke Ridge,” Kranzlin wrote. “The McQuilkins are quick to respond to any question or concern—and have always asked me to let them know if anything is bothersome. Occasionally, I briefly smell the animals, but after spending two summers out by our pool, downward of the alpacas and chickens, I have no complaints. Visiting both species brought my late mother much joy.”
She continued: “I bought my property knowing there would be animals nearby and so should the Streingers, had they looked at the existing structures on the property, the history of the property and/or thought about the potential use of barns on a 4-acre property. I sincerely hope this is the last time any of us have to be concerned about this non-issue.”