×

Agritourism debate revived in Henniker and State House

  • An assessing map of the town of Henniker shows land on Mount Hunger Road owned by Stephen Bennett and Stephen Forster. The blue markers indicate land owned by Stephen Bennett; the land outlined in yellow is the Forster Christmas tree farm. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Stephen Forster is the owner of Forster’s Christmas Tree Farm in Henniker, April 14, 2016. Forster engaged in a court battle with the town over agritourism and what kind of events he’s allowed to host on his farm. Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor file



Monitor staff
Monday, February 19, 2018

In Henniker, the term “agritourism” has become fraught with tension.

At least, that’s the way both sides feel about the long-running discussion in the town about what kind of activities a farm should be able to hold on their land and still be considered a farm.

“I’m so sick of it, I feel like I have the flu,” said Planning Board Chairman Dean Tirrell. “I don’t understand how something as useful and clean as agritourism in Henniker has become a four-letter word.”

After six years of legal wrangling, Henniker will again have to contend with what is considered agritourism, as a citizen petition that would reshape the town’s zoning ordinance will be on the warrant article in March.

Many farms, pressed to find new ways to make money, have turned to themed weddings, pick-your-own services, corn mazes and educational events to draw interest and bring in revenue when traditional farming won’t suffice.

Supporters say it will keep farmers in business; detractors say it will destroy the town’s zoning and put farmland at risk.

Hanging over this small-town debate is a larger question about the future of how agritourism is defined. Senate Bill 412 – currently in the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee – would no longer allow municipalities to make their own agritourism definitions and make a state commissioner the arbiter of agritourism disputes between farmers and towns.

The view from Henniker

The debate in Henniker about agritourism has tangled roots that grow from Mount Hunger Road.

Steve Forster has fought the town for years to be able to hold wedding receptions on his Christmas tree farm. Starting in 2012, the case was in and out of Henniker’s zoning and planning boards; at one point, Forster sued the town, and the case went all the way to the state’s Supreme Court.

But after the court ruled, 4-1, that the weddings were not “ancillary” to the principal farming operation, and therefore could not be protected as agritourism, Forster drafted a zoning amendment for the town to vote on in March 2016.

Forster’s legislation locally defined agritourism to include weddings and several other activities that “attract visitors to a working farm.” At the same time, the planning board drafted another piece of legislation that allowed a conditional use permit to be granted for agritourism functions if the application meets standards that consider, among other things, public safety and environmental impact. Both zoning amendments were accepted by voters.

Forster then tried again to be able to host weddings, but his efforts eventually died when he went before Henniker’s zoning board in August 2016, where it faced fierce opposition from Forster’s neighbors, Stephen and Spencer Bennett, who own several parcels of land across from the Christmas tree farm. Forster has been eventless ever since.

Now, Forster is looking to sell his 110-acre parcel, but he’s continuing to support four zoning amendments through a citizen petition supporters say will allow farmers to survive.

“Of course it’s going to be beneficial to farmers,” Forster said. “It’s going to help them because there are so many loopholes that lawyers and planners put into local laws. ... A farmer or a person can easily understand it.”

The most important change to the zoning amendment would remove a single word: “ancillary,” the same word that tripped him up at the Supreme Court.

Forster said the removal of that word would clarify what farmers are allowed to do with their land and would still follow town laws that require farmers to get a conditional use permit for gatherings that would attract more than 300 people.

But the Henniker planning board does not feel the same way. Members voted unanimously against three of the amendments and 6-1 against the fourth during a meeting in January.

Tirrell said removing the word “ancillary” would give the planning board no control over what use is allowed on a farm. Not only that, he said, but the changes would allow anyone to claim they are a farm and start their own business venture in any part of town, regardless of whether farming is their main business.

“When you own a chicken and it walks by, that doesn’t mean you can say you are a chicken farmer, and then try to put on a wedding that brings in 100 people. That’s not ancillary,” Tirrell said. “It’s too loose, and there’s not language to protect your neighbors.”

Bennett, Forster’s longtime opponent on this issue, said the town has not done enough to educate the residents on the potential impact of the amendments. He said if they go through, the future of his and his sister Judith Brown’s parcels of land, which he might develop someday, may be at stake.

“If people don’t feel like they have enough information, they should vote it down and ask that it be resurrected next year,” he said. “I would like to see a much more informed debate.”

Legislative action

But if Senate Bill 412 comes to pass, any definition Henniker residents decide on may become permanent.

The bill in its current format would make three major changes: the definition of agritourism as laid out in RSA 21:32-a would be modified by striking a paragraph that says events must be “accessory uses” to the primary farm operation; municipalities would no longer be able to make their own definitions of agritourism; and if there is any dispute between a farmer and a municipality about what constitutes agritourism, the dispute would not go to the local courts. Instead, it would go before the commission of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food.

Sen. Bob Giuda said the bill would prevent landowners from losing thousands of dollars in legal fees, as any dispute would mean the municipality would have to go up against the state, instead of the farmer.

He said the current definitions are too vague, and include “ugly words like ancillary that are completely open to subjective interpretation ... it makes lawyers wealthy,” he said.

Giuda fielded a similar bill last year that died, but this year’s bill has a key difference: an amendment that was crafted with the help of the state’s Agriculture Commissioner.

“We certainly do not want every community to be defining agritourism, and having one town say a wedding reception counts while another does not,” Commissioner Shawn Jasper said in a recent interview.

Rob Johnson II, the policy director for the New Hampshire Farm Bureau, said his organization is concerned about some aspects of the bill, such as the first portion of the amendment that would redefine agriculture and the possibility of losing local control. Giuda has said he will withdraw the first paragraph of his amendment.

However, Johnson said the Farm Bureau isn’t necessarily against the bill.

“Once that first section is removed, the other language will be okay, if it’s better spelled out,” he said.

It’s unclear when SB 412 will move forward; the bill has been hanging out in the state Senate’s Ways and Means Committee since a public hearing on Jan. 10. The clock is moving much faster in Henniker – voting day for zoning amendments is March 13.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)