Henniker tree farmer appeals zoning board ruling against event business
Stephen Forster of Henniker works to trim his Christmas trees on his 98-acre farm Thursday morning, September 19, 2013. In February, the Henniker zoning board ruled that Forster was not able to host weddings or other events on his property. A Merrimack County Superior Court judge is considering his appeal to the zoning board's decision.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
A view of Stephen Forster's 98-acre property in Henniker and his Christmas Tree farm on Thursday morning, September 19, 2013. In February, the Henniker zoning board ruled that Forster was not able to host weddings or other events on his property. A Merrimack Superior Court judge is considering his appeal to the zoning board's decision.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
A Henniker Christmas tree farmer has sued his town over just one word, and a Merrimack County Superior Court judge is now considering exactly how to define a term relatively new to New Hampshire state statutes.
The word is “agritourism.”
Stephen Forster claims that word allows him to host weddings and other events on his roughly 100-acre farm.
And the town of Henniker claims that word does not allow the gatherings Forster hosts on his Mount Hunger Road property.
In February, the Henniker zoning board voted to deny Forster the right to host weddings and events on his tree farm. He filed a lawsuit to appeal that decision in Merrimack County Superior Court on Sept. 3.
This week, Forster sat on his deck with small stacks of papers in front of him – copies of the state’s regulation on farming and agritourism, the town’s zoning regulations and the application for assembly in Henniker. As he spoke, he jabbed his finger at the printed pages, the crisp lines of black text, the words he has faith will defend his event business and win his appeal with the judge.
“I become passionate about this because I feel like I’m being raked over the coals,” Forster said. “It’s passion here. I’m hoping the judge sees our way and understands what’s going on. All I ask the judge and the court to do is go by the regulations, and the intent of the regulation. Nothing more, nothing less.”
State law 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.”
The addition of agritourism to the laws governing farms and agriculture is a recent one, intended to generate extra income for struggling farms. It was printed in clear letters on the papers in front of Forster. Less clear is what can actually be included under “enjoyment of the farm environment,” and this case is the first in the state to pick apart the definitions of these terms.
Mark Fougere, planning consultant for Henniker, said the day-to-day lives of both farmers and townspeople hang in the balance as they wait for the judge’s ruling.
“There’s never been a lawsuit or a challenge to this definition because it’s so new,” Fougere said.
Acting on behalf of the town planning board, Fougere originally barred Forster from hosting weddings and events on the property when neighbors complained about noise and traffic more than a year ago. When Forster defended his business as agritourism, Fougere said he disagreed with the tree farmer’s interpretation of that term.
“Hosting events for 150 people and traffic on a rural dirt road did not seem to fit that definition (of agritourism),” Fougere said.
The zoning board has debated the case several times in past months, and in November, it voted to allow weddings on Forster’s property. At the time, state Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill wrote a letter that indicated on-site weddings could be included in the definition of “enjoyment of the farm environment.”
But court documents detail the hearings that followed as the board itself still disagreed on what agritourism means, and the thick case file leads to the zoning board’s February decision to yet again deny Forster the right to run his event business on the Christmas tree farm. In March, he filed a motion for a rehearing with the board. He was denied, so he went to court.
Forster continues to allow weddings and other events on his land as he waits for the written order on his case from the judge within the next couple of months. He said he uses the event business to supplement his income beyond the revenue from his Christmas trees.
“They gave us an overwhelming amount of latitude by that one paragraph (about agritourism) on how to produce an income because they don’t want the farms to go by the wayside,” Forster said.
Forster has been living on his Henniker property for more than three decades. When he hosts events, he said, he follows town ordinances on noise and limits attendance to less than 150 people.
“I’m trying to continue my life and make this a productive piece of property,” Forster said. “It’s not as if I’m making a nuclear waste plant or a dump or a junkyard or anything like that. This is an asset, what I’ve created here.”
Forster said he would appeal the case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court if he does not win his appeal. Fougere said an appeal could also be an option for the town of Henniker if the judge does not decide in its favor. And whatever definition emerges from court will be on the books in more than just the town of Henniker.
“What happens with this decision’s going to have statewide implications no matter which way it goes,” Fougere said. “Everyone agrees that keeping farms in the state is very, very important. . . . But if you look at the definition of agritourism and what the intent was and the testimony that was given up in Concord . . . I think the use that’s being proposed is taking it to a level that was not envisioned, and wasn’t envisioned by the authors.”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)