MORRIS — South Farms’ Twilight Concerts on the Farm will continue, according to event venue owner Ben Paletsky, despite in spite of a cease and desist order issued by the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission.
The performance series will end when Connecticut’s executive orders governing activities during the coronavirus pandemic — which affect venues like South Farms — end, Paletsky said.
“It’s been an amazing experience, and we have back-to-back, sold-out shows that are being covered by Rolling Stone magazine,” Paletsky said. “People have been saying that (the concerts) are going to save the music industry, because we’re following a format to bring top shelf, live entertainment to Litchfield County. We’re pioneering.”
Paletsky said the circumstances caused by the pandemic was an opportunity.
“A lot of people want answers to things and use established ideas, but during a pandemic, you need to be dynamic,” he said. “We’re doing an amazing thing. ... We’ve sold out. We’re one of the few places in the nation offering a socially distanced, live music experience.”
The commission issued the cease and desist order in response to public complaints, as well as their determination that the concert series — while created to compensate for lost revenues because of the pandemic at the farm — doesn’t fall under executive order 7MM, which allows outdoor dining, according to ct.gov.
The order “allows municipalities to expedite changes to their zoning rules or other ordinances to expand outdoor dining. Creates an expedited approval process for restaurants and other establishments that serve food to get fast-tracked permission to create or expand outdoor dining areas; Allows other businesses such as retail stores to get fast-tracked permission to sell goods ... in other outdoor areas. ... Allows restaurants and other businesses who already have liquor permits to serve alcohol only with food without applying for a separate permit or extension of use permit; and Allows private clubs to sell alcohol only to their members for delivery or pickup.”
Before the March shutdown in response to the pandemic, South Farms, on Higbie Road, was a wedding and event venue. When weddings and other events had to be canceled, Paletsky opted to use the property as an outdoor concert venue, with performances by musicians including Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Upcoming performances include Warren Haynes, Pete Davidson and John Mulaney, and the Allman Betts Band.
In a Sept. 21 letter to Paletsky, the commission said that in spite of not qualifying for Executive Order 7MM, the Morris zoning enforcement officer ranted a permit to present outdoor performances. “Approval was granted because it was felt that it ‘may be allowed under COVID.’ This makes it temporary, as the approval expires when the Executive Order expires,” according to the letter.
According to commission Chairman David Wiig, Paletsky’s initial application for the concert series was granted before the board understood exactly what was planned. “Ben had the impression and gave the impression to the ZEO that the executive order for outdoor dining would apply to any commercial use, including his ... Therefore he had a right to relocate his business outdoors ... To have outdoor concerts instead of indoors,” Wiig said.
“If the town approves something and something is built based on that approval, the town cannot tell then they can’t do it because they invested all this money, and therefore, if you stop them, you’ll be liable for their losses,” Wiig said.
The complaints from residents involve noise, lighting, traffic, event frequency and loitering, with concertgoers parking off-site “in strategic places to capture the event for free,” Wiig wrote.
During its Oct. 7 meeting, Wiig read a letter from Paletsky which addressed the complaints. Paletsky said he was finding ways to divert sound during performances; that stage lighting was turned inward to lessen its impact on the neighbors; that traffic backed up on Route 109 before the concerts, but not afterward; that the frequency of the concerts would change in the future. He also said event security was arriving early to prevent loitering.
During public comment at the meeting, one resident said the noise was upsetting her special needs son, and that patrons were using her driveway as a turnaround. Another man said he had all his windows and doors closed, and could still hear the music clearly. Others said the music continues until after 10:30 p.m., followed by traffic on residential roads after the concerts end.
“We wanted peace and quiet,” another speaker said. “We can’t go out on a pleasant evening five nights a week, stuck listening to this music.”
But Paletsky said he has received many letters in favor of the concert series, and that it provides “trickle down benefits to the community.” He has sent those letters to the commission.
“It’s generally been really well embraced,” Paletsky said. “We’re working through the process. Meanwhile, we’ve got people sending letters of support that are tear-jerking. ... I don’t know how you can discount that. The attention this has received is a reflection of how important this is. People need to reflect back and think about what Lenox, Mass., would look like if Tanglewood (music festival) didn’t exist.”
Paletsky said the series has helped local hotels including the Litchfield Inn and several bed and breakfasts, and that more than 60 people are employed at the farm. He also said local restaurants are seeing more customers than before the pandemic.
“It’s an economic engine that’s never been done before,” he said. “Food and beverage distributors are moving product. Uber drivers are ecstatic, because they’re bringing people here.
“This is not a corporate experiment,” Paletsky said. “We’re doing it, and we’re getting more accolades than complaints. It’s a shame that people are focusing only on the negative, when so much positive stuff is going on.”
Paletsky has previously said that when the pandemic restrictions end, his venue will likely return to its regular events.
The commission is awaiting an “end date” of the executive orders governing events such as the concert series.