An Orland farmer has been fined $1,000 for constructing a meat processing building without permission — but he says the town’s code enforcement officer is misinterpreting local zoning rules.
Joe Brown, who owns and operates Longshot Revival Homestead, and Code Enforcement Officer Luke Chiavelli, who serves Orland and three other nearby towns, agree that, under certain conditions, town approval for the 600-square-foot building is not required. But they disagree on how to interpret Brown’s use of the building.
The dispute is a test of the strength and limits of food sovereignty laws in Maine and highlights a gray area in its administration on small-scale, community farms.
Under state law, towns can assume local control of food requirements. Orland’s ordinance adopted in 2018 allows direct producer-to-consumer transactions involving food. However, the ordinance doesn’t apply to meat or poultry products that have to be produced or processed in compliance with the Maine Meat and Poultry Inspection Program, such as certain larger quantities of chickens and cows.
food sovereignty challenges
In the case of Brown’s farm, a primary issue is whether or not the processing building should be considered commercial or agricultural. Building permits in Orland are only required for commercial buildings and structures in the shoreland zone, so anything built as an accessory structure on a homesteader’s farm does not need a local building permit, Chiavelli said.
“I built this building under an agricultural exemption,” Brown said.
The structure was an accessory used for his cultivation of Mangalitsa pigs on his Beechwood Lane property. However, he later used it to process deer that hunters brought to him and paid for him to process.
When Chiavelli noticed the new building a year or so ago, he said he initially had no concerns about it because he assumed that it was being used for storage or animal shelter. But last month, after Chiavelli was contacted by a real estate agent whose client wanted to buy the property, he found out that Brown had been processing deer for others.
“I feel like when it’s [used for] other people’s animals, it’s commercial and needs to be reviewed by the Planning Board,” Chiavelli said.
Brown said that since then, Chiavelli has unfairly targeted his property and sought out other violations. The building was constructed for processing his own pigs, which exempted it from needing a building permit due to the food sovereignty ordinance, Brown said. It was only after he made this argument to town officials that Chiavelli shifted the focus of his concerns to the wiring and plumbing, Brown said.
“He still would not admit he made a mistake,” Brown said. “He intentionally misrepresented the situation to selectmen to say the real problem is a septic tank that he is aware of and asked me to discontinue using and had nothing to do with the fine.”
But Chiavelli said this is an issue of building code, not food sovereignty. The code enforcement officer said that Brown failed to hire a licensed electrician to wire the building as is required by state law. He also said that Orland requires property owners to get local permits whenever installing plumbing or septic systems — regardless of whether an actual building permit is needed — and Brown didn’t do this either.
Brown installed a sink and a floor drain in the building and connected both of them to a septic tank that, as far as Chiavelli knows, has not been finished or inspected. It still lacks a leach field, he said.
“I had no way of knowing there was plumbing inside the building,” Chiavelli said.
Spigots that simply point down at the ground don’t need plumbing permits, but sinks and drains that divert water to a sewer or septic system do.
food safety concerns
“Most barns don’t have sinks or plumbing for disposal,” he said.
Brown said he no longer uses the building. He has put it on the market in hopes of being able to find another, larger property that he can use to raise beef cows. There is a young couple who would like to buy the building and use it as a microbrewery, but they are “a little spooked” by how Chiavelli is pursuing the issue, he said.
Brown was granted an after-the-fact permit for the plumbing as part of the $1,000 fine that selectmen settled on for violations, Chiavelli said. But the septic tank will still have to pass inspection before a new owner can put it to use.
The state backs up municipalities when it comes to local septic rules, according to Jim Britt, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. He said the department will not issue a license to a farm that does not have a locally approved septic system.
“We do not consider it adequate if it does not comply with municipal requirements,” Britt said.
As for the commercial use of the building, Chiavelli acknowledged that whether or not cutting up deer qualifies for an agricultural exemption is “blurry,” which he said is why selectmen decided to reduce the $2,500 fine he recommended to $1,000.
While Brown’s project didn’t go before the Planning Board, it ended up being reviewed and fined by the town anyway. Chiavelli said that going before the Planning Board can help clarify things or air concerns ahead of time, even if a building permit isn’t ultimately needed.
Planning Board reviews also allow abutting property owners to be notified of a neighbor’s plans and to raise potential concerns, Chiavelli said. When that happens, the Planning Board then can seek to negotiate possible compromises that might reduce the likelihood of neighborhood conflicts down the road — though he has no indication that any neighbors objected to Brown’s operations.
For example, the Planning Board met Monday night and approved a similar application from Rainbow Farm on Route 15 to build a processing building for chickens they raise there, Chiavelli said. That arguably also could be considered an exempt agricultural function, but by having the proposal reviewed by the Planning Board, the town had the chance to weigh in on that and other aspects that might affect neighbors, such as how the farm disposes of extraneous body parts without creating an odor, he said.
“We want to make sure abutters have a say,” Chiavelli said. “I am not out to get him, but the rules are the rules.”