Amherst Select Board OKs separate meters for farms

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 1, 2018, by Scott Merzbach

Amherst farmers will have an opportunity to avoid paying sewer fees on municipal water they use for their agricultural operations.

The Select Board Monday adopted a new policy allowing installation of second water meters that will tally the amount of water used specifically for farming enterprises.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the intent of creating this policy is to promote farming in town by reducing expenses and making it more affordable for farmers to do business.

The policy comes in response to a concern brought forward by farmers to the Agricultural Commission in recent years that they were being subjected to fees for water not discharged into the sewer system. This was supplemented last year with a letter from the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation stating that sewer bills put a financial burden on farmers.

These agricultural meters, which will have to be installed according to specific criteria of the Department of Public Works, will measure the quantity of water used at farms for irrigating fields, hydrating animals and washing equipment.

The town has traditionally charged all customers who are on both the water and sewer systems by taking a reading from the water meters.

The policy crafted by DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring outlines the various conditions that must be followed and is explicit that second meters are only for agricultural use and not for watering lawns or filling swimming pools. A one-page “agricultural water meter authorization form” has to be filled out by applicants.

To be defined as a farmer, stipulations will include that land being farmed must be in the state’s chapter 61A program or the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program. Mooring said about a dozen farms qualify using this criteria.

Board member Connie Kruger said this could be too narrow a definition, worrying that new farmers may not be enrolled in their programs. Fellow board member Alisa Brewer wondered if there are farms that could be excluded because of this and if the board would thus be asked to provide exemptions.

Mooring said most of the large farms are already using chapter 61A because they get a break on their property taxes, and that the number that would take advantage of the second meter is quite small, because many farms are in areas not served by town sewer.

Bockelman said he wanted to tie the policy to specific programs so that it would be harder to make the claim that someone is a farmer. A family growing a tomato plant next to a swimming pool, for instance, couldn’t get a second meter.

Brewer said she is confident the new policy will benefit farmers over time.

Though the change had been pressed by Veronica “Ronnie” Wagner, whose family runs a farm on North East Street, Wagner said she remains concerned that thousands of dollars the town has collected from farmers over the years, especially those that don’t have wells or ponds from which they can draw, won’t be returned.

Wagner said she is still exploring whether it was legal to do this.

But Kruger said it is a legitimate practice, even if some disagree.

“To say it was illegally collected is not accurate,” Kruger said.