Historic Cheshire farm looks to host weddings, other events

CHESHIRE — John Torello is looking for ways to make his business more profitable.

The owner of the historic Old Bishop Farm at 500 South Meriden Road, Torello is fighting against the same economic forces impacting the rest of the nation and, as Torello explained to the Planning and Zoning Commission on Jan. 9, “With the way inflation’s been going we’ve got to find other revenue streams. I have people coming into my store once a week saying, could we do this, could we do that, and I’m telling them no because the town won’t let us.”

To that end, Torello is hoping that the PZC grants a request for an amendment to town ordinances that would allow him to build what he calls a “sunshine barn,” a structure on the property that could be used for hosting paid events such as weddings. According to Torello, his neighbors have been supportive of his plans and not-for-profit events that have already been held have gone off “without a hitch.”

The hold-up is that, in order to charge money for events, the town’s planning and zoning ordinances require a property to be at least 25 acres in size. Torello, whose land is 15.5 acres, would like to see that changed. However, the PZC has questions about what it would mean for other similarly sized properties.

Torello informally approached the PZC back in April 2022 to see whether the group would be open to such an ordinance change. He was back in front of the commission on Jan. 9, formally asking for a zone text change that would allow his property to qualify for profit-generating uses. While no decision was made, and Torello agreed to an extension, the competing interests of commercial uses and the interests of neighbors were the subject of discussion and consideration for the commissioners.

Torello said the principal use for the new building would be hosting nonprofit groups such as Best Buddies and the Cheshire Challengers. “They’ll have a home-base at our farm to do their awards ceremonies and their community events,” he said.

These and other events would still adhere to all applicable rules about hours, music and parking, he explained.

Describing Torello’s proposed changes, Cheshire Town Planner Michael Glidden said, “It’s kind of a reduced version of what you already allow in the regulation, scaled-down appropriately based on the size of the property.”

Glidden also said that, based on his last staff report, approximately 15 properties in town would qualify under Torello’s proposed amendment.

Despite that, Commissioner Jeff Natale counseled caution. “We just have to be really careful here because it does apply across town,” he commented.

Although Cheshire’s regulations defer to state noise standards, Commissioner Louis Todisco raised the question of amplified music and what impact it might have on neighbors.

“You can’t have an outdoor farm wedding and (say), ‘Oh, the band’s going to be inside.’ So, there’s a difference between are we having James Taylor, are we having Metallica?” responded Torello. “We had a farmer’s market this summer at the farm with ReRead Books (& More) and every single day there was amplified music and I could barely hear it from where I was in the store.”

Commissioner Matt Bowman raised the issue of parking. “In general, if there is not improvement and there are wetlands on the property, the disturbance of the soils could affect the wetlands,” he suggested.

Todisco also mentioned that even approving the text change wouldn’t necessarily cede all regulatory authority, stating, “After the text change, if somebody wants to do this on a particular site, they have to come and ask for a special permit.”

Quoting from the regulations, Todisco noted that the PZC “may vary the event standards in the subsection including, but not limited to, required setbacks, maximum number of attendees, hours when music may be played, and number of events per week, and limit the type of event or activity permitted, if the Planning and Zoning Commission determines that such variance or limitation is reasonably necessary to ensure public safety or welfare.” The special permit would be subject to renewal after two years as well, per the regulations.

“So, if I was a bad neighbor for two years you guys can say, ‘Guess what, we’re not giving you your new permit,’” Torello commented.

“Somebody could be a hell of a neighbor for two years and disrupt everybody’s lives in the area,” Natale responded. “And again I know you’re not planning to do that, but somebody on another piece of property could do that. We’re really trying to look out for not only the people around your farm but around the 15 other locations around town where (the amendment) could be (applied).”

Commission Chair Earl Kurtz III asked Glidden to clarify the differences between the current regulation and Torello’s proposal.

“I would like to see what the differences are for the next meeting,” he said. “I’m not against this at all, I just don’t want to see them popping up all over the place because we’re making this a smaller piece.”

The PZC is expected to take the issue up again at its meeting on Jan. 23.


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