Judge rules against Henniker tree farmer who wants to host weddings on his property
A superior court judge has affirmed a Henniker zoning board decision to block Stephen Forster from hosting weddings and events on his Christmas tree farm.
But the Henniker farmer said yesterday he will appeal the judge’s order, still claiming he should be allowed to book gatherings on his 110-acre property.
“I can’t stop,” Forster said. “We’re disappointed, but we can’t stop. We’ll do the best we can to win this.”
In February, the zoning board voted to deny Forster the right to host events on his tree farm. Forster argued his event business is “agritourism,” which is included in the state statute that defines farming in New Hampshire. The town cites that statute in its ordinance to define agriculture, but the zoning board disagreed with Forster’s interpretation of what “agritourism” actually means.
That term was added to state law in 2007, which now defines agritourism as “attracting 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.”
Forster filed a lawsuit in September to appeal the zoning board’s decision against him, and Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler ruled in the town’s favor Wednesday.
In his order, Smukler wrote that the zoning board’s understanding of agritourism was not unreasonable. While the state statute does mention agritourism, that word is not mentioned explicitly in its definitions of farming and agriculture, the order states.
Forster also cannot argue his event business is an accessory use of his land, or use of his property that is subordinate or incidental to its use as a Christmas tree farm, the judge wrote.
“Indeed, the record indicates that wedding and event customers are attracted more to the view and less to the Christmas trees,” the order states. “Moreover, the record contains no evidence that other farms in Henniker market weddings and events as accessory uses.”
Smukler’s order notes that other local farms, including the Diamond Hill Farm in Concord and the Gould Hill Farm in Contoocook, host commercial events and weddings to stay viable. But the order also states the court could not establish “a nexus” between the weddings and Forster’s farm, in part because Forster did not provide enough information about the Christmas tree farm’s operations in comparison with the event business.
Instead, Forster “generally asserts that commercial weddings and events are essential for the farm’s viability and that such uses are not subordinate or incidental,” the judge wrote. “This is not sufficient.”
The judge denied the town’s request to fine Forster for violating its zoning ordinances, although his order grants the town an injunction that prohibits Forster from hosting weddings and events on his property in the future.
But for Forster, it’s not over. He plans to appeal Smukler’s order.
“We have to follow the process. . . . That decision, it doesn’t work for us,” he said.
He’s gearing up to sell his trees during the holiday season, but he still wants to host events on his land in the future. Yesterday, Forster stood by his own understanding of what he can do on the farm he has owned for more than 30 years.
“I feel I’m legally right in what I’m doing here,” he said.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)