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Henniker: Forster files for new hearing in agritourism dispute with abutters

  • Stephen Forster addresses the zoning board during a meeting in Henniker on June 15. NICK STOICO / Monitor file



Monitor staff
Monday, July 25, 2016

A land use dispute on Henniker’s Mount Hunger Road continues, and both sides are calling in attorneys.

Stephen Forster, a Christmas tree farmer who hosts weddings on his 110-acre farm, is planning to take the town back to court after the zoning board decided the planning board erred in granting Forster a conditional use permit.

Forster, through his attorneys at BCM Environmental and Land Law, filed the motion for rehearing right before the deadline of July 15, which was 30 days after the decision was made.

The zoning board, which is not scheduled to meet until Aug. 17, has 30 days from the date of the filing to hold a public meeting, where members will review the submission and decide if there is new evidence to constitute a rehearing.

Forster says the zoning board was “unreasonable and unlawful, and totally negated the article the legislative body voted in.”

“They took all credibility away from the planning board,” Forster added.

Calls made to members of the zoning board were not returned. Henniker’s town planner, Mark Fougere, said if the zoning board finds “new evidence” then a rehearing would be held.

“If not, the ruling stands,” Fougere said.

The planning board granted Forster a conditional use permit at its April 27 meeting, allowing him to host weddings on the land under the town’s definition of agritourism that was approved by voters in March.

Stephen and Spencer Bennett, brothers who own separate parcels across Mount Hunger Road from Forster’s Christmas tree farm, appealed the decision to the zoning board and subsequently filed suit against the town in superior court. Their appeal included 11 other property owners who abut the farm.

Forster said he is prepared to take the issue to court for a second time. He has already been summoned for a Dec. 2 court date stemming from a lawsuit filed by the Bennetts.

The Bennettss attorney, Mark Puffer, argued the planning board should not have considered Forster’s application in the first place. The issue had already been litigated through the state Supreme Court, Puffer said, and Forster should not have been allowed to try again.

In the motion filed through his attorneys, Forster argues the circumstances have changed significantly since the issue was litigated. In March, voters approved changes to the zoning regulations and accepted an article that changed the local definition of agritourism. Within those changes, weddings are specifically included as acceptable agritourism use. 

In 2012, Forster was forced to stop his wedding business when he received a cease and desist letter from the town. Forster sued and the case was litigated through the state Supreme Court. The court ruled in a 4-1 decision last year that the weddings were not ancillary to the main farming operation and could not be considered agritourism.

Defeated in court, Forster organized an article for the 2016 town warrant that effectively redefined agritourism in Henniker to include weddings and other functions as acceptable uses. The town also created an article that established criteria to scrutinize a site plan application against. Both articles were approved by voters at town meeting in March, and the demands of both policies were met by Forster’s application, the planning board found.

But when the Bennetts’ brought the issue to the zoning board, members felt nothing had changed, despite the revised definitions being introduced to the town. Some members admitted they were confused by the circumstances of the situation and were not comfortable interpreting state and local definitions of agritourism. In the final vote, one board member joked there were “too many papers” involved in the case. That member, Gigi Laberge, chose to abstain from voting on the matter.

Forster told the Monitor that the board rushed its decision and didn’t consider all of the facts.

“I don’t think they wanted to take the time,” Forster said.

Zoning board Chairwoman Doreen Connor declined to comment on the decision. Fougere, the town planner, said all the information made available was reviewed by the board. As to whether the board should have spent more time considering the issue, he would not speak for the members who made the decision.

“If there were missing documents, they should have been submitted,” Fougere said. “If they should have looked over them more, that’s another thing.”

 

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