Amherst bylaw dating back to 1966 jeopardizes farm intern program

The Daily Hampshire Gazette. October 22, 2014. By Scott Merzbach.

AMHERST — Driving stakes into the ground and stringing up tomato plants on them was hard work for Samantha “Sam” Bavelock.

Despite the many hours of planting, weeding and harvesting she put in as an intern with the Many Hands Farm Corps over the summer, Bavelock said she loved the experience so much she wants to return next summer.

The problem is, she might not be able to, because the housing the program uses to train apprentices in agricultural fields around the Pioneer Valley may be in jeopardy.

A controversial town bylaw that prohibits more than four unrelated people from living together in a house is making the lodging for the interns questionable, and therefore putting the program’s future at risk, according to the attorney representing the program.

Many Hands has appealed a July order to stop violating the ordinance by code enforcement officer Jon Thompson after he discovered that at times nine people were living in the 110 Logtown Road home that houses the interns, who are predominantly college students. The 1966 town bylaw limits any household to four people unrelated by blood, adoption, marriage, civil union or other custodial relationship. A Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the matter will be held Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Town Room at Town Hall.

Hands-on farmwork

Interns say the experience they get through the program is invaluable — and in some cases serves as fieldwork that supplements what they are studying in college.

Bavelock said the program offered her practical experience, insights into farming and a much deeper understanding of all that goes into producing crops.

“During the month of June I had a blast,” said Bavelock, a food and farming sustainability major at the University of Massachusetts.

Carley McKee said she was so inspired during her internship at Many Hands that she returned this year as a summer-long crew leader.

“Many Hands is one of the most special and cool farm educational programs I’ve ever seen,” said McKee, a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz who came to the East Coast to work in the program.

Bavelock and McKee are among dozens of aspiring farmers from across the country who have participated in the program over the past four years.

Most of their time is spent toiling at farms throughout the Pioneer Valley, doing manual labor while they learn firsthand about farming practices, including working directly at the home farm, Many Hands, a Community Supported Agriculture enterprise at Amethyst Farm on North East Street, “On days there was CSA pickup, you got to see how your work affected the community in a positive way,” Bavelock said.

Northampton attorney Michael Pill, who represents Many Hands, calls the order to leave the Logtown Road house “high-handed, unthinking arrogance” on the part of the town’s building inspections office. The home, used during the growing season, is currently vacant.

“It would have taken inspection services a quick look to figure out that this is not your usual 500 undergraduates living together,” Pill said.

Sleeping in the basement

Building Commissioner Robert Morra said the response to the 1,241-square-foot home was prompted by a parent of one of the tenants.

“The site visit revealed sleeping quarters in three basement rooms without appropriate windows for light, ventilation and emergency escape,” Morra said.

Those basement rooms are no longer used, but Morra said Thompson noted the large number of occupants.

“The owner indicated that the home was used to house individuals associated with nearby agricultural activities without further explanation, therefore, the order was issued,” Morra said.

The violation letter was sent to Chad O’Rourke at Onesta Properties LLC, which owns the property. “I hereby order you to immediately cease and desist using this property in violation of the Amherst Zoning Bylaw,” Thompson wrote.

While Pill said there is no dispute his clients violated the law, he believes they qualify for an educational exemption under a provision that states “no zoning ordinance or bylaw shall regulate or restrict the interior area of a single-family residential building, nor shall any such ordinance or bylaw prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for … a nonprofit educational corporation.”

In his argument to the Zoning Board, Pill writes that enforcement action risks “destroying an innovative nonprofit educational organization that has become an important part of the growing local small-scale sustainable agriculture movement in Amherst and the Pioneer Valley.”

YCC model

Ryan Karb, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Plant and Soil Science Program, modeled the nonprofit program on the National Park Service’s Youth Conservation Corps. He participated in that program in 2010. Karb said its students camp and work in national parks.

In 2011, he started Many Hands, which he refers to as “education through labor.” He secured a portion of the Amethyst Farm to raise his own crops and rented the Logtown Road home that would house about 30 interns over the course of each summer. Most interns, who are typically 17 to 20 years old, work a month at time. They each receive a $600 stipend. There is no tuition and the housing is free. Karb, the lone full-time employee, said many will also get educational credits from their colleges and universities.

Each day, the teams are split in two and transported by vans to the farms. In general, the crews work on a different farm each day, Karb said. About a dozen farms participate, ranging in size from just a couple of acres to ones with more than 100 acres. Among them are the Red Fire Farm in Granby, Crimson & Clover Farm in Florence, Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton and Atlas Farm in South Deerfield.

Much of the work involves hand-weeding carrots and onion crops and doing hoeing. “Organic agriculture does really rely so much on manual labor,” Karb said. “We really embrace that type of work.”

Since the program began, Karb has added advanced leadership crew training, with these interns spending the entire summer at the home as group leaders.

Besides the physical labor, there is an educational component. Each week there are about four lessons, which may include instruction in how to operate a tractor, or a “weed walk” in which experts show the students how to identify weeds and plants. Karb also has friends who are herbalists and blacksmiths who teach how to grow certain plants and repair equipment.

But the home is an integral part of the education, he said. There, interns prepare both breakfast and dinner daily and do household chores to obtain skills in independent living.

Good neighbors

O’Rourke said in an email that he supports the appeal for an exemption, calling the farming apprentices respectful tenants and neighbors in the community. “I hope to have Ryan and his organization as a tenant for a long time,” O’Rourke said.

While the program is not affiliated with UMass, John Gerber, a professor of sustainable food and farming at Stockbridge School, said he has seen a number of graduates go through the program, both as participants and crew leaders.

“It’s a great experience for a young person,” Gerber said.

Not only do they learn about sustainable farming methods, with many of the farms using certified organic techniques, but they also get an appreciation for what it is like to work with their hands, Gerber said. “What the program can provide is a crew of people who know how to work hard.”

Gerber said he won’t be involved in the Zoning Board hearing. However, he said, he is confident that the interns Karb accepts are not causing problems in the neighborhood.

Bavelock said when she lived there, there was sufficient room in the home for everyone. “Personally, I found the housing situation fine,” she said.

In fact, she hopes to return as early as next summer to be a crew leader.

Karb said he could not discuss any aspects about the legal case. He said he aims to keep his focus on harvesting his crops for the CSA members he serves.

“This has not accomplished anything except to take me away from caring for the land I am responsible for and teaching and training others to continue this important work,” Karb said.

Keeping large groups at bay

Pill said the bylaw should not be so onerous that puts an innovative internship program out of business. Karb wouldn’t say whether his program might end without the lodging.

On the books since 1966, the town bylaw defines families in three ways: an individual living in one dwelling unit; a group related by marriage, blood or adoption; and “a group of unrelated individuals, not to exceed four, residing cooperatively in one dwelling unit.”

A Planning Board report on the bylaw issued in 1983 defended the bylaw as being “an attempt to control the takeover of dwelling units in the town by large groups” and provides “a measure of control over the problems of noise, litter, overcrowding and parking.”

The town bylaw is only sporadically enforced, usually depending on when the inspections office gets a complaint. In 2009, an inspector discovered that five female undergraduates were living at an East Pleasant Street home, prompted by a complaint about too many vehicles in the driveway, and one of the women agreed to leave to bring the home into compliance.

In the past, town officials, including former Town Manager Larry Shaffer, said the bylaw might not stand up to legal challenges. He based this on a recommendation from town counsel Robert Ritchie in 1989, who wrote that any zoning bylaw dealing with relationships among people, and not land use, might not pass constitutional muster.

The Student Government Association at UMass condemned the bylaw in 2010 as unfairly targeting students and a petition was brought forward to amend the bylaw. This was referred back to the Planning Board for additional study and has not been discussed since.

Pill said he is handling the case pro bono because Many Hands interns are among those who tend rice fields on land he owns.