In Henniker, neighbors pledge support for ‘appropriate’ agritourism

Monitor staff
Sunday, June 05, 2016

High atop Mount Hunger Road in Henniker, where the southern view captures green hills rolling through Weare, a firestorm between neighbors over land use has been brewing for years.

Lawsuits have been filed and litigated all the way up through the state’s highest court. Plans have been debated fiercely in the meeting room of Henniker’s town hall. At town meeting, zoning rules were changed under ordinances filed by town officials and residents, leaving some wondering which takes precedent in practice.

As words are fired across the road and the town prepares to possibly return to court on the matter, the neighborhood has come to be known by some locals as “Hate Hill.”

In April, the planning board said Stephen Forster could host weddings at his 110-acre Christmas tree farm on Mount Hunger Road. This decision was made 10 months after the state Supreme Court ruled weddings were not ancillary to Forster’s primary farming operation, a key condition under the state’s statute on agritourism.

But based on ordinances filed locally by Forster that added weddings under the town’s definition of agritourism and was approved by voters in March, the board could not find a reason to deny his site plan application.

Members of the board also filed an article that placed standards for the board to scrutinize a site plan application against in relation to agritourism. This article was also approved by voters.

Abutters to the farm, namely Ralph Joyce and Stephen Bennett, who have properties directly across the road from Forster’s farm, argue the board ignored precedent set by the Supreme Court last year and ruled blindly without legal counsel.

“I don’t know what (members of the board) were thinking,” Joyce told the Monitor. “It was a knee-jerk reaction on their part.”

At the April 27 planning board meeting, Joyce, a retired attorney from Weare, arrived with a box filled to the brim with thousands of pages of court proceedings from years of litigation around this issue. Members of the board were wide-eyed looking at the stack of paper. Joyce asked the documents be entered into the meeting’s record.

The documents “are probably sitting in an office,” Joyce said. “The planning board conferred with absolutely nobody, including the abutters. They didn’t seek the advice of counsel for the new ordinances. They didn’t look at the history. They didn’t do any of that. They gave us no choice but to appeal.”

And that’s what they did. Twelve abutters, with a couple more expected to add their names to the application, filed an appeal of the planning board’s decision to the zoning board. The zoning board will consider the appeal at its June 15 meeting.

“Our appeal is this question has been adjudicated all the way up to the Supreme Court and the verdict has been rendered,” Bennett said. Forster “is trying to get a do-over and nothing has really changed. Even in the legislation, the words ancillary, accessory, farming use . . . those are still the criteria that should be followed.”

A member of the planning board could not be reached by press time Sunday. Last week, Henniker’s planner, Mark Fougere, said he was not surprised an appeal was filed.

“It’s a very emotional issue,” he said. “In this particular case, we took the issue to the voters. That’s what we wanted to do three years ago.”

Don Armstrong, who served on the planning board from 2003 to 2005, says the planning board has stumbled through this issue since town meeting in March.

“They didn’t check everything out, plain and simple,” Armstrong said. “The first thing they should have done was say which article takes precedent, which one counts. The next thing would have been to consider the Supreme Court’s decision.”

The town’s legal counsel was not present at the April 27 meeting.

In their appeal, the abutters claim the articles altering the town’s zoning rules under agritourism maintain that the agritourism uses must be ancillary to the main farming operation, in this case farming and selling Christmas trees.

That argument was brought up at the April 27 meeting. But when a planning board member inquired about Forster’s revenue from Christmas tree sales compared with hosting weddings and other functions, resident Bruce Trivellini jumped to Forster’s defense. Trivellini said the board “does not have jurisdiction to regulate income in determining whether or not a use is ancillary,” according to meeting minutes.

“Farming occurs 365 days out of the year and the events on Mr. Forster’s lot are ancillary to this use,” Trivellini said.

Forster, a retired commercial airline pilot, has owned his farm since the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2012 that he got into the wedding business and began to alter his land to host the functions. Eventually, Forster received a cease-and-desist order from Fougere, the town planner, who was tipped off by Joyce.

“He didn’t get building permits, he didn’t respect the law, he didn’t go through a site review,” Joyce said. “He just started the business, period. . . . So we asked the zoning administrator for a ruling and he said it was not an allowed use.”

Whether he allowed Forster to continue or not, Fougere said the situation would likely have ended up in the same place.

Bennett and Joyce stressed that they are supportive of farmers and reject the notion that they are “anti-farming” because of this case. As abutters to the property, they’re concerned with possible safety risks and noise from hosting weddings and other functions.

“We are in complete support of the appropriate use of agritourism, and that means going by the law,” said Bennett, who grew up in Henniker but now lives in Newtown, Conn.

“We don’t have an objection to agritourism,” Joyce said. “But Mr. Forster is introducing a commercial business into a residential zone. . . . And the town has placed no restrictions on dates, times or the nature of these events.”

Forster is restricted to ending the events by 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. He told the Monitor the events are typically on either a Friday or Saturday and the music is off by 9:30 p.m. with guests leave shortly after.

Forster plans to continue with weddings he has already booked for later this summer, but he knew despite receiving approval from the planning board April 27 that the debate would continue.

“This is not over,” Forster said. “This is far from being over.”

Joyce has already built and sold one home in the area and is trying to build and sell on a few more of his lots. Bennett, who came into his land through inheritance and was subdivided between his siblings, said he does not have immediate plans to build on the land. His brother, Spencer, also owns land across the road from Forster’s farm, but his home is at the end of a mile-long driveway by Pleasant Pond.

Stephen Bennett, while disappointed with the decision, does not place the blame directly on the planning board members.

“These are volunteer citizens and I hate to be critical of them, but they need some guidance,” Bennett said. “I don’t really fault the members of the planning board. I think they were doing what they thought was right.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3314, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)