Planning and zoning permitting and permission at Nordic Farms

How is this all going to work for the ambitious new Charlotte farm project?

Will Raap presented his plans for the Nordic Farms on Route 7 at a Selectboard site visit on Monday. Planning Commission member Bill Stuono was in the crowd.

Photo by Chea Waters Evans

Nordic Farms plans and ponders permit process:
Owner Will Raap says he’s going the old-school route

by Chea Waters Evans

The scenic corridor of Route 7 in Charlotte offers sunset views over the lake; Camel’s Hump is in the distance with fields of wrapped-up marshmallow hay bales lining the busy road. Part of that lovely sweep of land is Nordic Farms, which has been a significant part of the landscape of Charlotte farming for a long, long time.

Entrepreneur Will Raap is the new owner of Nordic Farms. The approximately 600-acre property has been through many agricultural lifetimes, beginning with the Abenaki centuries ago. In recent years, varied attempts to resuscitate the dairy farm in its current form were generally unsuccessful. Raap has big plans for the property—plans that will take a lot of money, time, and cooperation with Charlotte’s town government. 

Last week, Raap unveiled his vision for the Route 7 farm. It’s a multi-business, cooperative agricultural hub that includes a single-malt whiskey producer which will be on-site from seed to sips; an aquaculture shrimp-growing enterprise; a medicinal herb grower and processor; a museum, a bakery, and more. Raap said that he hopes to have a site plan ready for review in September, and to have the malting business operational within the next few months.

Charlotte has high planning and zoning hurdles that have frustrated business owners over the years; the Town Plan is focused on moderate and deliberate growth. Maintaining the town’s rural character is a priority, and local land use regulations reflect that. In 2018, however, the state of Vermont approved Act 143, which includes provisions that allow state regulations for accessory on-farm businesses to supersede many municipal zoning laws and land use regulations. Philo Ridge Farm on Mt. Philo Rd., for example, was able to open its doors that year with little municipal oversight because of that law. (A landowner can’t just proclaim his or her property to be a farm, though—that designation comes from meeting extensive state requirements.)

Raap said that at the moment, he doesn’t need or want to lean on that leeway from the state. According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, under Act 143, if 51 percent or more of an accessory on-farm business’s sales come from “qualifying agricultural products principally produced on the farm,” they can avoid a lot of local permitting applications, although they are still required to go through the site plan review process. 

Raap is planning his crops and building plans according to Act 143 standards, but said he doesn’t plan to take advantage of the opportunity to circumvent Charlotte municipal oversight through state law.

“I know you need to be sensitive to the expectations and attitudes of a town like Charlotte and we have that available to us, yes,” he said. “We’re trying to actually act as if we don’t, and go through the normal development process so that we conform to expectations, to zoning requirements, to master plan requirements, etc.—because if we do that, we get the double benefit, I think, of fitting into what Charlotte was trying to create.” 

Charlotte LURs were updated with a vote on Town Meeting Day this March to include AOFB regulations. They wrap the accessory on-farm businesses into performance standards that already apply to other potential businesses in town. They also clarify that highway access permits for new uses or new access points need to be obtained from the Selectboard, and set standards for parking and emergency vehicle access requirements.

Zoning Board of Adjustment Chair Lane Morrison and Planning Commission Chair Peter Joslin both told The Charlotte Bridge they couldn’t comment on the Nordic Farms project, in anticipation of possible future permitting applications. Selectboard Chair Matt Krasnow said that Zoning Administrator Wendy Pelletier is the first point of contact between Nordic Farms and the town, and that she is the first decision-maker for many aspects of a project like this. He said that if an interested party disagrees with a ZA decision, they can appeal, and then the matter would come before the ZBA. He said he told Town Administrator Dean Bloch, who is Pelletier’s direct supervisor, “to encourage Wendy to reach out to [Nordic Farms]” and to be “welcoming and proactive rather than regulatory” in response to issues or concerns as the project moves along.

Nordic Farms used to be a dairy farm; independent Vermont dairy farms are rapidly disappearing, but the land is still there and so are the farmers. Anson Tebbetts, Vermont’s secretary of Agriculture, Food & Markets, told The Charlotte Bridge in an interview that he’s supportive of and excited about Raap’s innovative approach to farming.

“Will has a long, successful record of working with communities and growing agriculture, but also being very respectful of the environment, and the land, and its people and animals,” Tebbetts said, “so I’m confident that he’ll work closely with local officials in Charlotte and work to make his business successful, but also make sure that it’s okay with the character and understanding and development of Charlotte.”

Tebbetts supports Raap’s plans to farm on a stretch of road that he calls a “gateway into the suburban area” of Chittenden County. “The state will do all it can to support the operation and if we can lend a hand and help him in any way, we stand ready to do that,” Tebbetts said. “We’re always excited when there are new businesses related to agriculture. Will has a long, successful history in agriculture, he’s cultivated many businesses over time, and he has a vision.”

Raap said that in addition to the town and the AAFM, he’s also working closely with the Vermont Land Trust, VTRANS, and the Vermont State Housing Authority. There are conservation and ecological easements on the property that require thoughtful planning of crops and farmer and employee housing, and careful consideration will be needed regarding traffic and access on Route 7 in an area which sees frequent accidents.

Raap said that he sees the project as rebuilding something that’s been in the works for a long time rather than starting something completely new. He said that the Town Plan set forth a “vision” for Nordic Farms with the easements and conservation efforts. “I have been involved in enough development projects in Vermont to know, you better get that right. And Charlotte has a lot of constraints or concerts or resistance to significant change, but in the biggest sense, we’re trying to take something that was changed 30 years ago when it was conserved and make it survivable with that restriction on it.”

With a $3.75 million bank loan on the property and restrictions on the way some of that land can be used, Raap said it’s going to be difficult to generate enough revenue to sustain the farm, but he’s up for the challenge. 

He said he sees it this way: “It’s a huge problem or a huge opportunity—which one do you want it to be?”

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