Henniker: Weddings on Mount Hunger Road? Zoning board says not so fast

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

  • From left: Stephen Bennett, attorney Mark Puffer, Spencer Bennett and Ralph Joyce at a Henniker Zoning Board meeting on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • The zoning board Wednesday discusses an appeal of the planning board by abutters to Stephen Forster’s Christmas tree farm. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • Henniker Zoning Board Chairwoman Doreen Connor responds to a comment during a meeting Wednesday, June 15, 2016. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • Stephen Forster addresses the zoning board during a meeting in Henniker on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/17/2016 12:40:03 AM

Brides and grooms with weddings planned at Stephen Forster’s Christmas tree farm in Henniker this summer might need a backup plan.

The zoning board ruled Wednesday that the planning board erred in its decision to allow Forster to host weddings and other functions on his 110-acre farm in the southern end of town.

Abutters to Forster’s farm on Mount Hunger Road appealed the planning board’s approval of his site plan application, and in a 3-1 vote, with one abstention, the zoning board decided his application never should have been considered in the first place.

As of now, Forster’s permit has been revoked, but he told the Monitor he plans to pursue the case further, perhaps back to court. He is even accepting donations from supporters to help cover legal expenses.

Forster already sued the town after he was ordered to stop his wedding business in 2012. The case was litigated up through the state Supreme Court, which ruled in a 4-1 decision last year that his event business is not directly linked to his farming operation and therefore is not protected as agritourism.

Yet voters approved two zoning ordinances in March that effectively redefined and specified what can be considered agritourism locally, but members of the zoning board were not convinced the new rules provided a different circumstance where the issue could be heard again.

“What changed?” zoning board member Leon Parker asked. “The two articles still say the same thing.”

In Parker’s view, the newly introduced rules don’t change the requirement that the events must be an accessory to the main tree farming business.

“There is no evidence it is a subordinate use, and nothing has changed,” Parker said.

If the circumstances have not changed, the board was told by attorney Mark Puffer – representing abutters Stephen and Spencer Bennett – that the planning board should have denied a hearing for Forster’s application since a decision had already been made.

But Forster rejected their reasoning, arguing that a lot has changed since the Supreme Court’s decision, namely the new ordinances that were introduced into the zoning regulations.

“No change? What do you call writing a new warrant article?” Forster said Thursday. “They’re telling the people of the town that their voice does not count.”

He also argued the events are an accessory to his main farming business, which he said operates “nearly 365 days per year” compared with the 15 weddings he said he hosts.

Calls made to members of the zoning board were not returned Thursday. As they deliberated their decision Wednesday, some members were unsure of how to vote and admitted they did not fully understand the situation or how to interpret state and local law on what defines agritourism.

One member, Gigi Laberge, joked that there were “too many papers” to review in the case and abstained from voting in two decisions.

At several points during the hearing, members of the board seemed unsure how to proceed and fell into long stretches of silence. After the meeting, zoning board Chairwoman Doreen Connor declined to comment on the proceedings or the decision.

Puffer, speaking on behalf of the Bennetts, said the board made a “very straightforward decision.”

“This matter has been litigated to a great expense to everyone involved and it should be over,” Puffer said.

Fewer than 20 people attended the hearing. The appeal was signed by Stephen Bennett and included 11 other property owners abutting the farm.

While he contemplates his next step, Forster has posted “no trespassing” signs on the public ATV and snowmobile trail that passes through his property. Forster said he maintains about a mile of the trail by mowing and occasionally grading it.

“I can’t allow tourism on my property, but I am expected to keep this thing going and maintain it?” Forster said. “I want to invite people onto my property to enjoy it, like the town is already inviting people onto my property to enjoy it.”

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

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