SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Lavender aficionado Henry Cabrera, who grows and harvests the plant on his farm along Route 1, isn’t getting a lot of sweet-smelling notes from his neighbors these days.
Instead, they are causing a stink and protesting his using the farm for weddings and other kinds of events that are all too commercial for their liking.
The South County Hospital physician says, though, “I’ve been a very good team player. I haven’t been asking for a whole lot of crazy stuff” from town officials who must approve his plans for events on the farm.
Cabrera says he’s trying to accommodate the neighbors while using the large lavender field for a maximum of 15 events yearly, earning some money to recover operating costs and have a little profit.
At issue is the interpretation – and resulting effects on neighborhood tranquility – of a town ordinance that says farms can host non-agricultural events, such as educational conferences, fundraisers for nonprofit entities, weddings and other personal recognition events.
The issue is before the town Planning Board, which is working with the neighbors and Cabrera to find solutions to help both live and thrive in harmony – or at least without much rancor – among the pine camphor-smelling lavender.
Lavender plants run row after row, each creating a path to a white gazebo like a center of a spoked wheel among these purple flowers on the farm. Domestic animals also keep an eye on the lavender from their pens at what Cabrera calls a “Luxury Lavender Farm.”
“I wanted things that are unique,” said Cabrera, who bought the land four years ago and spent the last three years transforming the total 14-acre site into a rustic invitation-only spot for lavender lovers and a money-making event venue.
In this first year of his operations – challenged by the coronavirus and various restrictions – Cabrera has offered only special times and by reservation only for the public to visit his farm.
While he has had some weddings there already, he needed to cancel some when the dust up occurred with the neighbors, he said.
The farm once had been used for raising cows and butchering them to sell. Cabrera has different ideas for it.
“I picked lavender to grow. It’s an incredible crop, it’s a perennial, it’s nearly deer-proof, it’s relatively disease-proof and it’s easy to grow and low maintenance,” said the doctor, chief of anesthesiology at the hospital.
“I really like the lifestyle,” he said in an interview this past summer, waving his hand across the long rows of 4,000 wavy purple plants both short and low, exotic and usual, with names like “Phenomenal,” “Edelweiss,” “Folgate,” “Grosso,” and “Super Blue.”
In a barn on the property, lavender is cut into small bunches and set to dry before sale to those visiting the farm or making special online orders.
He also has about 75 animals, including chickens, guinea hens, ducks, geese, a white peacock, unique babydoll sheep, alpacas, a llama named Dolly and a donkey named Diego, both of whom protect the others from predators.
These parts of the farm are not what trouble the neighbors. They’re bothered by him looking at commercial uses of the farm. He even has an events promoter working with him to help make the site more well-known in South County and the rest of New England.
Neighbors like Herbert Zech oppose the changing times that are turning these and other local farms into more than just places for raising animals, cultivating flowers, growing food and offering flora of the region.
“The hygienic situation for events like these is insufficient. Portable toilets are not the solution. Women in ball dresses should go there? Really?” He wrote to town officials in July.
Zech’s complaints echoed those of other neighbors of Cabrera. Zech also expressed worries about “artificial lights from these events (that) will affect the surrounding wildlife and neighborhood.”
“The proposed events have nothing to do with farming events. They are celebrations or, call it by the name, parties,” he said.
As with other neighbors, he said he supports Cabrera’s “vision for the property as a unique and beautiful lavender farm together with accompanying events like ‘cut your own lavender,’ which allow people to experience the peace and natural beauty of his farm.”
Partying, dancing, hooting and hollering out there is another matter, he said about the potentially raucous behavior weddings and similar events could bring.
“They are noisy parties involving food, alcohol, light shows and dancing to loud music,” he wrote.
Neighbors Cory and Nevin Driscoll also wrote about concerns regarding noise, a lack of privacy and safety.
“We have a puppy who is trained to stay in our yard, but as most puppies are, she is curious and may wander across the property line,” they said.
“Our well is located at the back of our property approximately 45 feet from the proposed parking spots and the possibility of hazardous fluid leakage into the groundwater and our well is troubling,” the Driscolls said, “Also, the introduction of alcohol, a dark field and driving creates a recipe for concern.”
John Kenyon, a Wakefield attorney representing Cabrera before town boards, said that roadway concerns, noise, parking, attendance and shut-down times for events are being discussed now and will be part of a proposal he and the physician will bring in the coming weeks to the town Planning Board.
A few years ago, another farm – Farmhouse by the Sea – sought a designation to offer the same as Cabrera. It also sought a zoning permit for a bed and breakfast at the six-bedroom farmhouse at 310 Matunuck Schoolhouse Road.
After many months of discussions and complaints from neighbors, the town zoning panel denied the permit, effectively damaging the plans of Seth and Carolyn Ford Gross for other approvals for holding events.
Kenyon, who also represented the Grosses, said that traffic by the houses was one major objection from neighbors. They fought tirelessly against the approval, claiming weddings – held without town approval – at the property tended to be loud and caused a major uptick in traffic on the otherwise quiet street.
While Cabrera can already hold events – as could the Grosses – town regulations for parking lead to larger questions, like the number of people coming and noise and operating plans.
In the context of those details and location can be either an approval or denial of a proposal for similar uses, town officials said.
“We are always balancing interests. That’s what planning does,” said Jason Parker, town planner. “You need to take (each) of these on their own merits,” he added about how property design, crowd control and even parking lot availability affect the final decision of officials.
Cabrera has said he wants to develop the hobby that he has funded himself and recoup some of its costs through sales and event hosting for weddings, social events, parties and other gatherings as permitted by current state guidances.
He also said he has set up an online petition for support that has amassed over 350 endorsements of the potential for events on the lavender farm.
“This is my first year. There’s really no revenue stream. I have a full-time job and this isn’t a place that’s open to the public on an everyday basis,” Cabrera said. “So I have to recapture some of the money somehow, so I do it in small, marginal ways.”