Henniker zoning board declines to reconsider decision on Forster’s Christmas Tree Farm

  • Jason Reimers (center), an attorney with BCM Environmental and Land Law, argues for Stephen Forster (right) during a meeting of the Henniker zoning board on Wednesday. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/10/2016 11:30:12 PM

Stephen Forster did not expect to win over the Henniker zoning board.

He didn’t think the board would walk back on its decision in June to overturn the planning board’s ruling that allowed Forster to host weddings on his Christmas tree farm. He didn’t think he would leave the meeting and return to his home high atop Mount Hunger Road with the town’s blessing to continue a practice that he, and his supporters, consider to be agritourism.

Instead, he left the meeting room with the result he expected.

The zoning board rejected Forster’s motion for a rehearing Wednesday night at the town’s community center. In a 3-1 vote, the board stuck with its original decision – that the planning board erred in allowing Forster to hold weddings on his farm, and that the case has already been litigated up through the state’s highest court and therefore should not be reconsidered.

But another round of litigation appears to be on the horizon for the town and Forster, who said he is prepared to return to court to get to the bottom of what he describes as an “expensive lesson in English composition.” That’s because the dispute – or at least the legal portion of it, which has been ongoing since 2012 – focuses on agritourism, a word that many say lacks a clear definition. Agritourism loosely encompasses farm attractions separate from the farming business itself, allowing the farmer to diversify their revenue streams, such as offering hayrides or a corn maze.

But a local interpretation of agritourism is also at play, and the language in those rules – some of which is closely related to the state statute – was heavily scrutinized by two attorneys at the Wednesday meeting.

Forster’s Christmas Tree Farm stretches across about 110 acres at the top of Mount Hunger Road in Henniker, facing east toward rolling green hills. The landscape and its striking views have proven to be an attractive site for brides and grooms, but a land use dispute has stalled operations. Across the street and around the property, several abutters have expressed concerns about the farm’s wedding business. Noise, late parties and hazardous roadways are among their most common worries they have expressed.

Forster was eventually ordered by the town to cease wedding operations in 2012, which he answered with a lawsuit that reached the state Supreme Court. But after the court ruled, 4-1, that the weddings were not ancillary to the principal farming operation, and therefore could not be protected as agritourism, Forster took the legislative route and drafted a zoning amendment for the town to vote on in March.

Voters accepted Forster’s legislation, which locally defined agritourism to explicitly include weddings and several other activities that “attract visitors to a working farm.” Voters also passed another entry to the regulations, sponsored by the planning board, that allows a conditional use permit to be granted for agritourism functions if the application meets standards that consider, among other things, public safety and environmental impact.

Forster filed an application with the planning board, citing the newly adopted rules, and the board accepted it in April. But for abutters to the farm, that was not the end of things.

The group against Forster’s operation have been led by two brothers, Stephen and Spencer Bennett, who own property across the road. Ralph Joyce, another vocal opponent, lives in Weare but owns land alongside the Bennetts as well. Along with the signature of 11 other abutters, Stephen Bennett appealed the planning board’s decision to the zoning board.

With an attorney at their side, the Bennetts were successful and the zoning board overturned the planning board’s decision. Forster did not have an attorney when that decision was made. Before filing for the board to reconsider, he sought legal counsel and hired the BCM Environmental and Land Law firm. Jason Reimers, an attorney with the firm, spoke for Forster at Wednesday’s meeting.

Reimers argued that neither zoning board nor the planning board had any decision to make in the process. The decision, he said, had already been made by voters when they decided to include weddings in its definition of agritourism.

“The listed uses are already deemed accessory,” Reimers said, citing the list of activities allowed.

Despite Reimers’s argument, the board stuck to its decision and turned down Forster’s motion. But while one side believes the board misconstrued the law’s meaning, intent and language, another side thinks the board’s decision was right on.

“We expected that,” Stephen Bennett said. “The board came to the right conclusion.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3309, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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