Editorial: Agritourism law needs clarification
When dairy farmer Max Yasgur allowed promoters to use his land to host a concert, a half-million people showed up. History, musical and otherwise, was made. The year was 1969 and the town was Woodstock, N.Y. Could that be what a majority of the members of the Henniker Zoning Board of Adjustment were really worried about when they voted to forbid Henniker tree farmer Stephen Forster from hosting weddings, reunions and other commercial events on his tree farm atop Mount Hunger?
Though small specialty and hobby farms are increasing, New Hampshire has steadily been losing its large farms. Six of the state’s dairy farms ceased operation last year and 10 the year before. Orchards, too, continue to fall to development. To succeed, many farms need to find an additional way to use their land to generate income. When they succeed, the fields stay mowed, the land remains undivided and the rural nature of New Hampshire remains intact.
That is the backdrop for the debate in Henniker, which like most such disputes, pits a farmer who wants to conduct a commercial business on his property against neighbors who object to the actual or potential nuisance that additional noise and traffic can create.
In this case, it is Forster, who wants to support his farm and earn his keep by hosting weddings, against neighbors who object to allowing additional traffic and noise created by a business operation in a rural, residential zone. Historically, Forster has hosted only a handful of events per year, but the quality of his website raised suspicions that he was about to expand his wedding and gift shop business, and neighbors complained.
We’ll leave aside the debate over whether Forster’s wedding business predates Henniker’s 1987 zoning law and is thus grandfathered as well as the question of whether complaints of excessive noise are justified. Instead, we will focus on the state law that sanctions “agritourism” as a way to keep farms in business. That law, it appears, may be in need of clarification in order to settle disputes and keep them out of the courts.
The zoning board and some of Forster’s neighbors point to the law, which defines agritourism as a permitted agricultural activity in which visitors come 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 ancillary to the farm operation.” State Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill submitted a letter declaring that hosting weddings was permitted under the agritourism law and that many farms did so. Jane Presby of Concord’s Dimond Hill Farm and Tim Bassett of Hopkinton’s Gould Hill Farm told the board members that their farms regularly hosted weddings and other events without complaints from neighbors. We’re confident that could occur on Mount Hunger as well.
At the heart of the Henniker dispute is the question of whether Forster’s wedding business is, indeed, “ancillary” to his Christmas tree business, which is relatively small. Without sales figures that Forster hasn’t, and shouldn’t, provide, it’s impossible to say. Nor does current revenue necessarily suggest what will happen in the future. The question of whether farm-related agritourism grows to be bigger than the farming component should largely be irrelevant. The goal of the law is to keep farms in operation, and lawmakers should rewrite the law to reflect that by eliminating its “ancillary” component. It’s conceivable that someone could put a tomato plant on a plot of land, call it a farm, cite the agritourism law, and try to build a concert venue like Gilford’s Meadowbrook behind it. But if that happens, lawmakers could more specifically define what it means to be a farm, and do it in ways that don’t depend on what provides its main source of income.