Bill would take away local control of agritourism

Monitor staff
Published: 2/14/2017 11:11:36 PM

Less than a year after legislators approved a bill defining how municipal bodies should treat agritourism, the New Hampshire Senate is considering another bill that would completely remove local regulation on the issue.

During a Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee hearing, the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Bob Giuda, argued that the law passed in 2016 didn’t go far enough to protect the commercial interests of farmers.

“We are allowing our local communities ... to define commerce in our state,” he said. “That is not a power we give to our towns and communities.”

Giuda said his proposed amendments to the law were necessary in light of several ongoing lawsuits that pit farmers who want to diversify and host weddings to stay in business against their neighbors who want peace and quiet on the weekend.

“The law is being used against individuals by other individuals because we have not clearly defined what agritourism is or how it operates,” Giuda told the committee last week.

Two farmers at the center of agritourism lawsuits – Andrew Howe of Gilford and Stephen Forster of Henniker – shared their stories with the committee about high legal costs, acrimony with neighbors, and struggling to maintain their farm businesses in the meantime.

“It’s been the worst experience of my life,” Howe said. He added that he and his family, who operate Timber Hill Farm, have been in a legal fight for 18 months.

Forster, who owns a Christmas tree farm and has been in a legal dispute since 2012 that, at one point, was heard by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, said he couldn’t continue on much longer, either.

“Five years of legal fees and loss of needed revenue cannot be made up with any amount of events, weddings or sales of Christmas trees,” he said.

Agriculture community leaders, including the New Hampshire Farm Bureau and the state Department of Agriculture, do not support the bill, however.

Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill said taking away local oversight would likely make town residents less welcoming, and more afraid of their nearby farmers.

“They’ll wonder, what will that farm do or become next?” Merrill said. “I don’t think that this benefits our farmers.”

She also noted that the way Giuda’s bill is currently written – where agritourism isn’t defined as an “accessory use” to a working farm, but is simply defined as an activity to attract people to a farm – is problematic.

This language would circumvent the 2015 Supreme Court decision that said weddings don’t fall under “accessory use,” and therefore need a special permit or variance, decided by municipal bodies. But Merrill noted the bill could have unintended consequences, too.

“(It) would basically allow a farm theme park, and such things do exist in other states,” she said.

The commissioner continued that there are plenty of examples of successful agritourism in New Hampshire under the state’s current laws, like pick-your-own berries and farm-to-table dinners.

“They are happening in most cases without conflict,” she said. “They are in fact very popular because people in the community enjoy them and benefit from them.”

Former state senator Dave Boutin, who put together a group of two dozen people, including lawmakers, farmers, citizens, municipal representatives and other interested parties, oversaw the creation of last year’s agritourism bill. He asked why Giuda was in such a rush to change a law so recently enacted.

“We’re not even a year down the road,” Boutin said. “Don’t you think we ought to give this law a chance?”

Others at the meeting argued, however, that farmers like Howe and Forster couldn’t wait any longer.

Former Alstead state representative Anne Cartwright told the committee last week that farmers will continue to struggle if local bodies maintain control over agritourism regulation.

“They do not have the financial ability to continue those fights,” she said. “Our state will suffer from their going out of business.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, or on Twitter

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