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Henniker tree farmer denied event business, says he will appeal

Henniker tree farmer Stephen Forster intends to go to court to appeal a zoning board decision forbidding him to host commercial events on his property.

The 3-2 decision came after a contentious hearing that stretched more than five hours and included testimony from other farmers. The board’s ruling on Feb. 7 overturns its own decision in November that permitted Forster to host weddings on his 98-acre farm on Mount Hunger Road, pending a site inspection.

Forster has grown Christmas trees on the property for more than three decades, and in recent years has developed a sizable side business hosting weddings and other gatherings. But since last spring he has been locked in a battle with neighbors and town officials over the legality of his second operation.

Some neighbors have raised concerns about noise and traffic from the events, and argue Forster is exploiting the term “agritourism” – a farm-related activity intended to generate revenue for struggling farms and ranches – to bypass local zoning restrictions.

Forster defends that he should be allowed to operate the business under the cloak of the term because his events depend on the farm’s unique environment and setting.

“This is the one time the state has come down with something that actually helps farmers,” he said. “And now the town wants to take that away.”

In November, the board ruled that hosting weddings could be interpreted as agritourism because they attract visitors for “enjoyment of the farm environment,” which is one of the criteria listed in the state’s definition of the term. The board’s decision at that time was influenced in part by a letter from state Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill, which indicated that on-site weddings are included in that definition.

But according to minutes from this month’s hearing, the board was torn on whether it should adopt that logic. Zoning board member Joan Oliveira said she thought Forster’s activity was permitted under the state’s interpretation of agritourism. Another board member, Gigi Laberge, who later voted to deny Forster’s request, said she supported agritourism but had researched other examples of farms using it and found that their activities often incorporated educational components, which weddings and other such events typically do not. She said she viewed the event business as a separate business held at the farm.

Others suggested their decision on Forster’s case had greater significance than for just this farm. Board member Bob Pagano said “farms are failing all over the state and country,” according to the meeting minutes. “He said that they have thought of a new use which may seem strange, but it is to save the farms.”

Two local farmers who have developed agritourism on their property testified in support of Forster, saying it has helped their small operations survive a difficult economic time.

Jane Presby, who manages Dimond Hill Farm in Concord, told the board she hosts events on her farm and has an agreement with neighbors to turn off music by 10 p.m. She also said she always invites neighbors to events and has never had an issue with them.

Tim Bassett of Gould Hill Farm in Hopkinton said he has hosted everything from weddings to high school cross-country running races at his orchard, and that doing so brings “exposure to those who may not have been there otherwise.”

After hours of testimony and discussion, Oliveira moved to allow Forster to hold weddings and other events as long as he agreed to a site plan review, which is a process used by planners to evaluate a nonresidential property an owner proposes to develop. Pagano said he wouldn’t agree to the review, and the motion failed to be seconded.

Then Pagano moved to allow the events without a review, but no one seconded the motion and it too failed.

Oliveira moved again to allow the events pending a review and Pagano seconded the motion, but it failed on a 3-2 vote.

Chairwoman Doreen Connor then moved to uphold the town planner’s decision last year that the events were not agritourism and would therefore not be permitted by the town. That motion finally passed.

Forster said last week he intends to appeal the decision as many times as is takes.

“We’ll probably lose at the superior court level, but hopefully will win at the (state) Supreme Court level,” he said.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or
jblackman@cmonitor.com.)

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