The fate of the drive-in theater promised at Demarest Farms next month is uncertain, as Hillsdale officials maintain the farm's owner did not take the proper steps in filing for approval of the theater.
Farm owner Jason Degise planned the sold-out summer series in mid-May as a result of a COVID-19 pandemic, and under the assumption it was covered by the agricultural management plan (AMP) guidelines, he said.
The problem, Hillsdale officials say, is that Degise never informed local police of the event -- something he is required to do for each one -- nor did he gain formal approval from the local zoning board and county agricultural board, according to his attorney Larry Kleiner and Hillsdale Mayor John Ruocco.
"The bottom line is that the neither the borough, nor the state agricultural board have told Mr. Degise that the drive-thru theater is permissible," Ruocco said. "He cannot point to any document or phone call saying it’s permitted.
"Farm events must be covered by the AMP, governed by the county farm board, and if you read the AMP, drive-in theaters are not listed. So, it defaults to the local town. Mr. Degise should know this."
"The theater is not specifically related to farming, but that businesses need to reinvent themselves during this pandemic," Kleiner noted, "and this is exactly what Jason is trying to do."
Local police and borough officials questioned the drive-thru theater when they saw the advertisement circulating on social media May 18, leaving them scrambling, Ruocco said.
A special Mayor and Council meeting is expected to be held in the coming days to discuss and possibly vote on the theater.
Although drive-in theaters are not mentioned in the AMP guidelines, the sale of farm goods are. Degise told Daily Voice he believed that alone made the drive-thru theater permissible.
"We absolutely believe we’re following the guidelines put forth by the farm board, as we’re showing an educational video [at the event] and selling farm products during the event," Degise said, citing section b of the AMP guidelines.
Within a matter of days of advertising the summer movie series at the farm, Degise sold 75 percent of tickets, valued at $25 per vehicle. As of May 30, every night was sold out.
It wasn't long after Degise began advertising that Ruocco and local police began getting emails from residents, concerned that the event was never formally approved by borough officials.
Police contacted Degise asking him about the activity taking place, the farm owner told Daily Voice. Degise was supposed to have alerted them to the event well ahead of time so they could assist with traffic, Ruocco explained.
Once Degise was contacted by police, he provided them with a complete letter of the event, the farm owner said.
"The Hillsdale police and borough get a complete report yearly. With all the uncertainty around COVID-19 restrictions, I have indicated to the police department we don’t foresee having major events for pick your own season. We plan on lots of little events for safety of our customers and staff."
Movie night being one of them, Degise said.
And so, borough officials began discussing how to proceed. The first step was looking over the AMP guidelines, which did not mention anything about drive-thru theaters on farms.
Hillsdale zoning officer Anthony Merlino on May 21 emailed Degise saying the theater was not permitted, and a land use variance application was necessary. Within the hour, Degise forwarded him an email written by Adam Strobel -- who directs the county's division of land management, which advises the agricultural board, comprised of local farmers.
Strobel's email sent to farm board trustees encouraged them to embrace Degise's approach to business amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidelines, however, did not appear to have been amended to include the drive-thru theater as of May 30.
Strobel did not respond to Daily Voice's email, text message or phone call Saturday morning.
"If an activity isn't in the AMP, then the local town takes precedence -- they become the approver of an activity," Ruocco explained "The farm would have to go to the local planning board seeking approval, and drive-ins aren't mentioned in Hillsdale's land use ordinance. Therefor, it's not allowed
"All I've seen are discussions that took place between Strobel and Degise. those are recommendations, not changes to the AMP."
After seeing Strobel's email, Merlino told Daily Voice he no longer had a concern from a zoning standpoint -- but never expressed that to Degise.
Degise published a portion of an email from Merlino sent to Daily Voice on his Facebook page without displaying who the email was directed to.
"That may have led people to believe he received approval," Ruocco said.
Degise did not hear from Merlino personally again until after Memorial Day Weekend. On May 26, Merlino emailed Degise saying again that he did, in fact, need to apply for a land use variance.
Buyers have not yet been notified that there's a chance the event will be cancelled, Degise said.
"My hope is that the mayor and council will have second thoughts and approve movie night," said Degise, "so we can bring smiles to people in a crazy time of unknown."
"Movies on the farm would certainly help the farm stay afloat," Kleiner said.
"I think that the township is definitely putting form over substance. There is zero negative impact on community, only positive impact.
"Hillsdale will constantly say how much they love the farm, yet this is an opportunity for them to show that."
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