Abutters file suit against Henniker, Christmas tree farmer

  • Stephen Forster is the owner of Forster’s Christmas Tree Farm in Henniker, April 14, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 6/2/2016 1:56:46 AM

The town of Henniker and Christmas tree farmer Stephen Forster are back in court, but this time they are both defendants.

A year after the state Supreme Court denied Forster the ability to host weddings on his farm, he received the town’s approval after zoning regulations were changed.

But abutters to Forster’s farm on Mount Hunger Road have filed suit in Merrimack County Superior Court against the town and Forster, arguing the planning board erred in its decision to allow Forster to host weddings. The abutters also appealed the planning board’s decision to the zoning board.

“This issue has been litigated previously,” said Mark Puffer, a Concord attorney representing Stephen and Spencer Bennett, two neighbors to Forster’s property. Forster “is essentially proposing the same use and the Supreme Court has held that use is not ancillary to the principal farm operation.”

The appeal to the zoning board is signed by Stephen Bennett, and it includes 11 additional abutters on the application.

“We would like to see the zoning board of adjustment have a hearing hopefully at its June 15 meeting and overturn the planning board’s decision,” Puffer said. “This has already been decided.”

Now, after being sued by Forster for denying his wedding business, the town is being sued for approving it. Henniker Planner Mark Fougere said he is not surprised the issue is going back to court.

“It’s a very emotional issue,” Fougere said. “If I had ruled differently three years ago, we would have ended up in the same place.”

In 2012, Forster received a cease-and-desist order from the town regarding his wedding business. Forster sued the town, arguing the weddings fall under agritourism, a term used for attractions that farmers may employ to diversify revenue.

But after the state Supreme Court upheld a superior court judge’s decision to deny Forster’s claim, the Christmas tree farmer turned to the voters in Henniker to change zoning regulations. In March, voters approved two zoning ordinances on agritourism. One article, submitted by Forster, added weddings under the town’s definition of agritourism.

With new rules in place, Forster quickly filed a new site plan application. This time around, planning board members saw no reason to deny him and gave Forster the okay at their April 27 meeting.

But in the suit, the abutters claim neither article changes “the requirement that agritourism uses be ancillary and accessory to a principal farming operation.” They assert that the weddings themselves are not at the heart of this debate, but whether the revenue generated by the weddings is an accessory to Forster’s Christmas tree business.

“Forster failed to present sufficient evidence to the planning board that his proposed use of allowing weddings and other events would be minor in relation to the principal use of farmer,” the filing states. “Nor did he show that his proposed uses had commonly, habitually, and by long practice been associated with farming in the Henniker area. Forster failed to meet his burden of proving that his proposed uses would be accessory to a principal farming use.”

At the April 27 meeting, some abutters complained of the noise and traffic the weddings bring. One neighbor said music and noise during the weddings’ receptions interferes with the tranquility she expects from living in a rural area. Stephen Bennet, who drove up from his home in Newtown, Conn., said dirt roads are not safe enough to handle wedding traffic coming in and out of the property.

Forster and the town are named in the suit as defendants, but Forster says the Bennetts have no reason to include him in their proceedings.

“I have nothing to do with it,” Forster said. “It’s in the planning board’s court now.”

Despite the suit and appeal, Forster has “several” weddings planned toward the end of the summer and is not intending to cancel them.

“I think everything I did was right,” he said. “I followed the law.”

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