Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Milton Folks Clash Over Agri-Business

Homeowners take exception to agricultural use next door
by Jason Wright / Appen Newspapers /

It seems many Milton residents moved here because of its rural character, but they get upset when that rural character means rural businesses. But agricultural uses are to be expected in a city that has 19,000 acres zoned for just that.When retirees Don Baker and his wife, Susan, bought the property at 1470 Redd Road to expand their orchid growing business, Rainbeau Flowers, in August 2006, they were elated.Don said the pair sunk their retirement funds into the property in preparation of moving their greenhouses, which have been located at their current home just down the street since 1990."It was supposed to be the culmination of our lives' work," he said. However, what has transpired in the months since then has been just the opposite. They have found neighbors angry at the way the property was clear cut, citizens upset by the construction of greenhouses they find "ugly and industrial" and meetings mired in governmental red tape.Lately, the protests have taken a darker turn, with disgruntled residents calling Bakers' clients threatening to boycott them and otherwise harass them."There has been a car that sits at the end of the road and watches us," he said. "Someone even followed my wife – trying to see who we sell to, I guess. It's introduced this element of fear into our lives. We never expected such animosity from the public."

These extraordinary instances aside, Baker's case seems to be symptomatic of a larger culture clash in Milton. Million-dollar homes sit next to working farms where the realities of the sights, sounds and smells of country living are not what many expected.

Kathleen Smith, who has run Hidden Haven Farm with her husband at their home on Bethany Road since 1999, said she has seen this phenomenon first hand.Her farm yields produce, chickens and fiber in small quantities – what she calls a "truck market" operation because the goods are taken to local farmers markets. She said, however, that her home's front pasture could grow a whole lot more if her neighbors would let her till it."I don't do it because I'm just fed up with hearing people complain," she said. "You know, it's real farming, it's not going to be pretty."In Smith's case, and in most cases throughout Milton, everyone learns to co-exist peacefully with each other save for a few temporary flare-ups.

Certainly it's rare for neighbors to be so openly hostile toward one another, as in Baker's case.Community Development Director Tom Wilson said what appears to have happened is that residents move into areas zoned agricultural expecting them to be serene, pastoral – and above all – residential settings."I think people are surprised when they get there that next door there is an agricultural use which has piled manure up right next door to their property," he said. "We have people living in agricultural districts and next door to them, we have people exercising agricultural uses."Wilson admits that smelly example might be extreme. But in the case of the greenhouses, the concept is the same since they are operating lawfully under the Agriculture zoning classification."And I think some people would prefer that it not be there, but it is the zoned district for it," said Wilson. "It's really about the person who lives in the residential house and what their tolerance level is."

Smith said she's noticed people aren't ready for all the realities and harshness of farming."People want the 'Disney-fied' rural experience,'" she said. "They want to drive by these farms on the way to their subdivisions. They don't want to actually be impacted by them."In other words, people want to see the little red barn but not the cows and chickens.As if to illustrate this fact, Baker said in the 16-odd years his greenhouses were at their prior location on Redd Road, no one ever really had a problem with them. It's only been since the move to a location where they are visible from the road that the he has run into static.

An April 17 Board of Zoning appeals meeting served as the sounding board for many of Baker's perturbed neighbors. There they aired their grievances against Baker and urged the board to restrict his use of the property on Redd Road."This is a residential area with very expensive, beautiful homes and very nice schools. And we understand the zoning is AG1, which is allowable for commercial [agriculture]," said Laura Houston, a resident of the Reddstone subdivision. "But [he carried out his plan with a] blatant lack of respect for anyone around him."

Later Houston said she thinks the Bakers should be sensitive to their neighbors."He told me he has been here since 1979 and he can do whatever he wants. But times have changed, and most people have changed with them," she said. Houston said her home sits directly across from Baker's greenhouse property and that he clear cut the area without understanding the implications. She also said his supply trucks block the neighborhood's entrance."We've got this monstrosity we see everyday that we come by our house," she said.Houston also alleged Baker set up business illegally and without permits until he was caught – an allegation Baker contends was an "unwilling mistake."She was joined in this opinion by Redd Road neighbor Steven Domenico, who forcefully argued that Baker worked without a permit and was fined for it."It makes this place look like an industrial park, and I don't believe any of us voted for the city of Milton to become like that," he said. "We'd like to keep it nice, residential. It used to be a beautiful horse farm and now it looks quite unattractive."The meeting saw roughly an hour of public comment on the issue, which ran the gamut of supporters and vehement opposition.

Smith said she suspects a number of Milton homeowners are so concerned about their property values because they know they won't retire in the area."They know the company is going to move them off in a couple of years, and then they'll make money on the sale of their house," she said. "We were going to retire here too, but now we're not. I just can't deal with the people,"Smith said she complained when people bought the farm land around us to make the subdivisions"Now it seems like they are in and they don't want anybody else to change the land," she said.

Baker and his wife suspect they may be lightening roads for larger frustrations about Milton's land use, citing resident fears over the new Birmingham School and Crabapple Corners."We're the little guy, we don't have a team of lawyers who come down and claim imminent domain," he said. "But what happens when they get rid of us? Will the horse barns be next?"At the end of the day, Wilson said he just wants people to be educated about what uses are permitted on agricultural land so that they are prepared when a neighbor might undertake a project like Smith's or Baker's."I approach this as an educational opportunity to let people know they are not moving to Virginia Highlands, they are not moving to Beverly Hills," he said.

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