Neighbors Head to Court to Stop New Programs at Town's Katama Farm

By MANDY LOCKE

Complaining that Edgartown officials turned a deaf ear to their appeals to limit operations at Katama Farm, a group of four Katama residents will go to court Tuesday - pleading with a superior court judge to evict the FARM Institute, newest tenant of the town-owned farm.

"We're not opposed to the FARM Institute. We're not opposed to having them work with certain parts of the land. But we were shocked to learn that the farm's been turned over lock, stock and barrel," said Robert H. Jackson, one of the residents filing suit and - back in 1979 - co-chair of the Katama Farm Committee, a group that helped raise money to purchase the 220 acres of grassplains.

The neighbors, who say they represent hundreds of frustrated seasonal and year-round Katama residents, are requesting a preliminary injunction in the Bristol County Courthouse. If granted, the move would immediately force the new farmers, their animals and equipment off the town property.

"When you peel away the layers, it's not really a matter of what the town or the FARM Institute did, [the neighbors] don't want anything there except an expansion of their own front yards," said John Curelli, executive director of the FARM (Farming and Agricultural Resource Management) Institute, a young non-profit organization that currently operates educational programs for children at Herring Creek Farm.

The neighbors - Seth Welcom, Robert Farwell, Thomas Burke and Mr. Jackson, all of Katama - are suing the institute, Edgartown selectmen and the conservation commission, the town board acting as the farm's landlord.

The suit claims the town violated the "passive recreation" purpose of Katama Farm by allowing the institute to erect two-and-a-half miles of fence around a field that the public has used for hiking, biking, hunting and birding for more than three decades. By grazing cattle across this enclosed field, the lawsuit argues, the institute shut the public out of Katama Farm - a deviation, they say, from conservation commission management plans; an annual town meeting vote in 1979 to purchase the farm; the intention of the Vineyard Conservation Society and private donors when they raised money for the $340,000 purchase, and the $150,000 commitment from the state's Self Help program.

"I'm not opposed to the educational dimensions of the FARM Institute's plans. But what their plans say is ‘to heck with passive recreation, we'll do whatever we want,'" Mr. Farwell said.

"It's not that it's not ours anymore. It's not anybody's," said Mr. Welcom.

But Mr. Curelli said the public, as always, is welcome on Katama Farm.

"They are charging us with locking out the public. The sign at the entrance says the public is welcome. There are families out there right now, looking at the haying," said Mr. Curelli yesterday morning. A lane that cuts across the fields is gated, but the public can pass through.

Though selectmen and the conservation commission members received numerous letters of complaint and petitions from Katama residents since they awarded use of the farm to the institute in March, the lawsuit shocked Edgartown leaders.

"I'm incredulous that there's anyone opposing this. I suppose that putting up a fence indicated a slight change, but people opposing this astounds me," said Edward Vincent Jr., chairman of the conservation commission.

"For the first time, we've actually had a tenant with the credentials to run it. I hope it's not because they think it could be a successful farm that they're worried," Mr. Vincent added.

The conservation commission and Katama Farm tenants are no strangers to neighborhood protests. The property's first two farmers - Stephen Potter of Seaside Dairy and later James McCarthy - endured strained relations with neighbors through much of the 1980s and early 1990s. Financial pressures forced both dairy operations to a close after difficult stints.

"There really seems to be a jinx on that farm. People move next door to a farm, and they don't like what goes on at a farm. They bring their suburban ideals down here, and it doesn't match up," said Edith Potter, a conservation commission member and one of the members of the Katama Farm Committee in 1979.

But these neighbors waged no complaints against Katama Farm's most recent tenant - Mervin C. Hardwick, who left last fall after eight years of marginally successful cattle farming. Failed attempts to raise dairy cattle led to an ever-dwindling herd of beef cattle in his last years at Katama Farm.

"The last person really didn't do much farming. They enjoyed that. Now, there's someone there who actually wants to run a farm," Mrs. Potter.

But these Katama residents think the institute is pushing the envelope with their visions for the 160-acre farm.

"Isn't it beyond farming now? They've got plans for a day care, a farmstand, a day camp, a dormitory, a commercial kitchen. What of that is farming?" asked Mr. Welcom.

His reference is to a use plan the institute submitted to the commission in February - outlining short-term goals and long-term visions for a community agriculture resource center.

Neighbors felt shut out of the process of choosing a new guardian of Katama Farm - an extensive search process that spanned the winter months.

"Off-islanders came home for the summer to see fences popping up," Mr. Farwell said.

"We didn't hear anything about it until the fences went up," agreed Mr. Jackson.

But the conservation commission said they weeded through a stack of more than a dozen applicants this winter, through a series of public meetings. Advertisements ran in local newspapers, announcing the search for a new farm tenant, officials said.

"In my opinion, the commission studied this very thoroughly. We acted in a judicial and prudent way. It's been more than half a year since we started this process," Mr. Vincent noted.

The neighbors felt the commission ignored their concerns.

"Now, we've been stonewalled," Mr. Jackson added, noting how a meeting the commission called in June to respond to their petition seemed hostile.

Communication between neighbors and the conservation commission has now been reduced to letters between attorneys. And neighbors have refused invitations for a farm tour and coffee, saying it's too late for such conversations.

"We're thoroughly turned off by the FARM Institute and the conservation commission. We've gotten no response," Mr. Farwell said.

Another point of contention for neighbors is the fact that a lease between the institute and the town has yet to be finalized. After the commission awarded the institute permission to occupy the farm on March 26, the board said a formal lease would be forthcoming within a month.

Now, 120 days have passed, and the institute and the town have yet to sign a lease or finalize a use plan for the farm.

But Mr. Vincent said a draft lease is complete and now awaits a new site map, an updated and detailed survey of the property he said the commission recently requested.

"The old plans are a bit confusing. We want a clear understanding of where all the areas are referred to in the management plans," Mr. Vincent explains.

Hearings regarding the institute's use plan will also be held in the near future, he said. "We don't like to rush into these things because you make mistakes when you rush in."

In the meantime, the neighbors are seeking relief from the institute's operations in the courts, and - incorporating together under the name Save Katama Farm - seeking wider community support; an advertising flyer promoting their case appears in copies of this morning's Gazette.

For their part, the institute is holding a fundraising auction at Katama farm on Sunday, promoting a picnic lunch and agriculture-related activities for families.

Mr. Farwell thinks going to court is necessary. "If you thought the conservation commission was already beyond its scope of power, how would you expect them to fix this?" he asked.