Henniker tree farmer calls event-hosting venture “agritourism”; neighbors object
Stephen Forster, of Henniker, said he has operated Forster's Christmas Tree Farm and shop for the past 40 years on the property along Mt. Hunger Road in Henniker. Neighbors are complaining about traffic and noise coming from events Forster is holding at his business. JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff
Stephen Forster said it was more than 35 years ago that he abandoned his career as an airline pilot and relocated to the remote, sloping wedge of land in southern Henniker where he has resided ever since. He said he came in search of peace and tranquility, and the chance to grow something. His choice: Christmas trees.
But more than three decades after Forster’s Christmas Tree Farm first sprouted into existence, neighbors are voicing concern that the farm’s 69-year-old proprietor is now trying to grow something else entirely, something for which he lacks any legal authority: a private event-hosting business.
Forster insists he’s done nothing wrong, that his side venture predates existing zoning laws and that he has no intention of building it into the noisy, raucous spectacle opponents fear it will become. He points to a state planning regulation that allows farms to develop special “agritourism” operations to help keep them afloat in difficult economic times.
“All I want the town to do is recognize that regulation, honor it, and let it go,” he said Monday from his two-story alpine farmhouse, which doubles as a gift shop and event planning area at the entrance to the farm. “If they want to add something to that regulation, get a warrant article going, change it and then have what you want to have.
“Otherwise,” he added, “excuse my language, but leave me the (expletive) alone.”
At a hearing last November, town planners appeared to side with Forster. Sort of. Following a lengthy discussion on whether hosting events is an acceptable agritourism activity since it has arguably no connection to the farming of Christmas trees, the town’s zoning board voted, 4-1, to let Forster host weddings and civil unions on the property, pending a site plan review.
But neither Forster nor his neighbors were satisfied with the ruling – the latter saying it went too far, the former saying it didn’t go far enough. So each appealed, and tomorrow both camps will return to the planning board to re-plead their cases.
Forster’s opponents – including neighbor and former Henniker planning official Spencer Bennett, Bennett’s son, Ross, and six others – contend that this is more than just a neighborhood dispute. They say it is about someone using the broad cloak of “agritourism” to bypass local zoning laws.
The Bennetts, who raised concern about Forster’s plans last spring, did not wish to speak on record for this article, but in a letter sent to the planning board in November, Ross described himself as a staunch proponent of local agriculture, and of ways to keep small farms solvent. He cautioned, though, that permitting a farmer to operate any venture on his or her land would set a dangerous precedent, leading to any number of potentially lucrative ventures that, at best, loosely relate to the farm’s primary purpose.
Forster “would have you believe that almost any commercial activity occurring on a working farm is exempt from zoning regulations,” Bennett wrote. “The agritourism definition clearly states that any zoning exemptions must be ‘ancillary’ to the agricultural use of the property. If it isn’t ancillary, it isn’t agritourism.”
According to minutes from the November hearing, Bennett “asked if the Forsters could entertain having a hardware store or a race track and call it an ancillary use to the farm operation.”
“This does not mean to get a free pass from zoning,” he said, according to the minutes.
‘Serene and spiritual’
For anyone who makes the slow, winding trek to his property atop Mount Hunger Road, it won’t take long to realize what gave Forster the idea to begin hosting events. Even in winter months the view from his farmhouse deck is breathtaking, looking out over fields of verdant young pine and a forested valley that continues for miles. Billows of smoke from the Bow power plant rise in the distance, offering one of the few visual signs of surrounding civilization.
Forster said this view, combined with Christmas memories from some longtime customers, is what attracts couples and organizations to want to use the land.
“It’s absolutely beautiful, serene and spiritual here,” he said. “I see this every day. I know the greatness, but you get someone in here for the first time or for Christmas and they are like, ‘Holy god, this is great.’ ”
Forster said he has been hosting weddings on the property since before 1987, when local zoning regulations were enacted. When the town’s planning consultant, Mark Fougere, contacted him last year after receiving complaints from neighbors, Forster noted that he was acting within his legal rights to host events because he had been doing it for so long.
Fougere said he responded that to be grandfathered in Forster would have to produce evidence that the pre-1987 events took place. He said Forster, in a written response, did not produce any – Forster has since offered a justice of the peace certificate as evidence that he was officiating weddings at the time – but instead turned to the argument that his venture fell under the state’s broad definition of agritourism.
According to the state law, agritourism is defined as any activity that attracts “visitors to a working farm for the purpose of eating a meal, making overnight stays, enjoyment of the farm environment, education on farm operations, or active involvement in the activity of the farm which is ancillary to the farm operation.”
Fougere said he has dealt with similar issues in recent years while working in other counties, and that he did not see reason to permit it because of the potential size of the events – Forster has proposed a cap at 150 people per function – and because it had nothing to do with Forster’s primary farm operation.
“Looking at the definition, I just couldn’t make that connection,” Fougere said. “My opinion was that it wasn’t a farm use, but a commercial use. So I suggested he needed to apply for a use variance.”
When Forster didn’t follow Fougere’s suggestion, he sent a cease-and-desist order to the property. Forster then hired an attorney and wrote to the state agriculture commissioner, Lorraine Merrill, who replied in October supporting his reading of the agritourism definition. “We interpret on-farm weddings to fall within this statutory definition,” Merrill wrote. “There are numerous examples of New Hampshire farms of all types that invite and host weddings in the farm setting for a fee.”
But Fougere said each town gets to set its own interpretation of the term, and when the Forster issue came before the planning board in November, deliberation over what Henniker’s should be was winded.
Weddings, civil union only
According to the minutes, board member Gigi Laberge said “she supports agritourism. However, she understands that events that take place to bring people in to buy the products of the farm are easier to see the correlation, and this does not happen with weddings.”
Board member Bruce Trivellini said that “weddings fall under enjoyment of the farm environment.”
At the end of their discussion, they decided to let Forster host weddings and civil unions only, and only then if he first obtained a site plan review, which is a process used by planners to evaluate a nonresidential property where an owner proposes adding development, such as buildings or structures, to ensure it has adequate public facilities and that it fits with surrounding development.
Forster insists he doesn’t need a review, and that he should be allowed to host any event as long as he doesn’t break any traffic or noise disturbance laws. He said that when he hosts events he offers valet service to ensure the one dirt stretch leading to his property doesn’t become congested. And he said he probably makes more noise by starting up his chainsaw than by playing chamber music at a wedding.
Forster also noted that in the past he’s never held more than a handful of gatherings in the course of a year, and that he wouldn’t be able to handle holding multiple events on consecutive weekends, as his neighbors have suggested.
“If I violate one of those ordinances, either with parking or noise, or something like that, then bring it up – say something,” he said. “But the way the rule reads now to me, I don’t have to do anything. I can just keep doing what I’m doing, and the state backs me up on it.”
The Bennetts, meanwhile, appear to now contend that it’s unlikely that Forster’s tree farm yields more revenue than his event business would, and therefore it cannot, by definition, be ancillary to the farm operation. In a letter sent to the planning board Jan. 31, their attorney wrote that aerial photographs suggest Forster raises only about 3,000 Christmas trees on his property, and that at most this would rake in roughly $9,000 in a season. The wedding business, by contrast, which can last up to six months, would bring in much more.
It’s unclear what the board will decide when it rehears the case tomorrow, but Fougere said regardless of the board’s vote it’s likely that one side will appeal, and that this issue will end in court.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or