Henry Harris says he has operated a youth activism camp on his Marshfield farm since 2016. Now, amid a dispute with town officials over permitting, Uprise Camp could be finished.
“Both the town and myself could have done better,” Harris wrote in an online posting last month. “But spending our (town’s) money to pay an attorney in Burlington to sue our small farm, and forcing me to spend money I don't have on defense is not a good use of funds or an appropriate way to work this out.”
The dispute landed in court in January 2022, when the town of Marshfield sued Harris in an attempt to stop him from continuing to run the camp on his property, arguing he had wrongfully operated without a permit for the previous two summers.
Harris’ lawyer, Evan Barquist of the Burlington firm Montroll Oettinger and Barquist, asked a state environmental court judge to dismiss the lawsuit. In a filing in March 2022, Barquist argued that Harris did not need a permit because the camp is not a commercial use of his property, and the town’s process for requiring Harris to apply for permits was vague and uncertain.
Uprise Camp describes itself as working “to nurture and support a growing network of creative and empowered revolutionary young people who are working and organizing for justice.” The eight-day summer camp ranges in cost from free to a $500 donation, according to filings in the lawsuit. It usually attracts 20 to 30 teenagers from around the country, Harris said.
Employees are paid between $200 and $300, according to filings in the lawsuit, although Harris said it’s “run by mostly volunteer staff.”
“We only pay our staff of color because we can't afford to pay everybody,” he said.
The camp involves creative workshops that educate and train teens about topics such as racial justice, climate change and community organizing, which culminates in a “nonviolent civil disobedience” project at the end, Harris said.
Harris said in a past year, the teens in his camp “blockaded TD Bank to bring attention to their corporate ties to the fossil fuel extraction and messing up native communities.”
But it was canceled last year as the lawsuit — which centers on questions of permitting and zoning — worked through the courts.
Harris’ property is in the town’s agricultural and rural residential district. Because the property was not approved for commercial use, the town zoning administrator told Harris in 2019 that he needed a permit to host the camp, according to the lawsuit.
Commercial use in Marshfield is defined as “the production or provision of a product or service in return for monetary and/or other consideration,” which includes “non-profit organizations engaged in the provision of goods or services,” according to the town’s zoning regulations.
Despite disagreeing that he needed a permit, Harris applied for and received one for a single year in 2019, according to the complaint.
The following year, the town zoning administrator sent Harris a notice of violation after discovering he planned to operate the camp without the permit, according to the lawsuit. Harris said he appealed the violation and applied for a permit simultaneously, to ensure he was “covering all of our bases.”
“It's not like we've been just trying to duck the process,” he said. “We just wanted our appeal heard.”
However, the town received both the permit and appeal “too late in the process” to issue a permit, according to the lawsuit. Harris hosted the camp without one.
The next year, the zoning administrator sent Harris a letter on April 1, ahead of the July 25 start date of the camp, directing him to apply for a permit once again. He appealed again — this time without applying for a permit, according to the lawsuit.
“He was notified — reminded, basically — that he needed to go ahead and apply for a permit for the camp,” Marshfield Zoning Administrator Kathleen Hayes said. “For some reason — and this is where it gets really strange — he decided to appeal that decision saying that he needed to have a permit, rather than applying for the permit.”
Hayes said she advised him to also apply while he appealed the decision, because then there would be enough time to still get the permit if he did not win the appeal.
“I said to him, ‘Look, this is fine, but if the decision doesn't go your way, there isn't going to be enough time to apply for a permit again,’” she said.
The Marshfield Development Review Board heard the appeal in early July 2021. Harris testified that he had a right to gather on his property for political reasons, according to the lawsuit.
“The First Amendment provides for the right of free assembly together for redress of grievances against the government,” he said in an interview.
His appeal was denied. The Development Review Board ruled that “operation of the camp was a commercial use,” which is a “change in use” for the farm. Therefore, to operate his camp — no matter what the gathering entailed — Harris did, indeed, need a permit.
“It was an advertised camp with tuition,” Hayes said. “That's a commercial camp.”
Harris did not appeal the decision, even though the town says the Development Review Board notified him of his right to do so and how. He then applied for a permit on July 13, 2021, for a camp that started 12 days later, according to the lawsuit, which the town contends was again too late.
Harris operated the camp without a permit anyway, which led to the town’s January 2022 decision to sue.
In the motion to dismiss, Harris’ lawyers argued that the camp is not a commercial enterprise simply because it employs a staff and takes donations. They contend that certain uses of Harris’ property do not require a permit, such as “recreation, camping, dormitory and community purposes” — and claim the camp is no different from any of those.
“This would place any private party within the definition of commercial use if (it) is professionally catered or was held ‘potluck style’ where all guests are expected to contribute,” the motion says.
In September 2022, Judge Thomas S. Durkin of Vermont Superior Court denied Harris’ motion to dismiss. Durkin noted Harris’ “primary argument” was that the camp was not a commercial operation, but since Harris never appealed the Development Review Board’s decision or his notice of violation after operating the camp, “the court is bound by the finding that the camp was a commercial use.”
Durkin wrote that the town showed that Harris needed a permit to operate the camp, while Harris “failed to meet his burden of establishing that a constitutional violation requires the court to dismiss this enforcement action.”
In his post on Front Porch Forum last month, Harris appealed to his neighbors, asking them to write to the town clerk's office and ask the selectboard to drop the lawsuit. Harris wrote that he respects the town officials’ hard work, but argued that small towns offer residents the opportunity “to sit down and work things out instead of suing each other.”
“It had nothing to do with him wanting to operate a political action camp, and everything to do with him not applying for a permit,” Hayes said.
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