By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
SANBORNTON — Tim Lang, chairman of the Sanbornton Zoning Board, also is a legislator who believes in giving new laws a chance to work.
Next week, that process will play out in Sanbornton, where a recently passed law defending the right of farms to host weddings will be at the heart of a discussion between members of two local boards who collided over the best way to regulate agritourism.
On Tuesday, Feb. 28, Sanbornton Planning Board Chairman Evelyn Auger is scheduled to appear before the Zoning Board to discuss how the town approved weddings at KREBS Farm.
The owners of the farm, the Rathjens, asked the Sanbornton Zoning Board to overturn a Planning Board decision to deem wedding functions a commercial use that would require a variance. Instead, the farm owners wanted this use permitted under the banner of agritourism, based on recent state law. The farm is located in a General Residential Zoning District.
The Zoning Board voted 4 to 1 to consider the Rathjens' project as agritourism, exempting it from a variance, or an exception for the particular commercial use.
Rather than fight the Zoning Board, the Planning Board granted a site plan for weddings on the farm. Last week, Auger announced she would be signing the site plan for KREBS Farm, but she said she didn't agree with the Planning Board's Feb. 2 vote, from which she abstained.
Auger said she wanted to meet with the Zoning Board to discuss the conflicting views.
The new law, Senate Bill 345, redefined agriculture to include marketing, and extended the umbrella of marketing to include agritourism, "which means attracting visitors to a farm to attend events and activities that are accessory uses to the primary farm operation."
Legislators passed the law in the wake of lawsuits over weddings on farms, typically by neighbors who complained of noise and crowds.
Lang said the Zoning Board deferred to the new law when granting KREBS Farm permission to proceed with weddings.
"We were the first ones who had the benefit of the law," Lang said.
Auger said she wholly supported the Rathjens and their plan to host weddings, but she wanted them to do so through a special exception in the zoning ordinance rather than through the state law.
"I'm coming as the chair of the board but not representing it. I'm representing only my opinion. Basically, what I want from them is where they came up with the fact that it wasn't commercial. How did they reach that decision that it wasn't commercial?" Auger said.
Lang said the Zoning Board went down a checklist.
"What it came down to, there were three options," he said.
The farm's wedding plan could be deemed a residential business, which didn't seem appropriate. It could be classified as a commercial business, which would be outside of zoning for the area. The third option was agritourism.
Auger said, "They negate the very fact that some of these things are commercial ventures. There's a very fine thread that ties them to agriculture."
Auger insisted that weddings on farms are commercial activities, and that they should fall under local zoning requirements.
"The other part of their decision which bothered me is they made the motion that our decision was wrong, and then they started saying that they needed to have information about parking, and what about the noise – that's a site plan. You get that when you decide the kind of business that this person is going to put in," Auger said. "The fact that it is commercial and they have to give permission for it is what triggers the site plan."
Lang said the Zoning Board felt that "the obvious intent" of the state law "was to encourage farms to have alternative revenue streams."
"The big question that was really before us was are people coming to that location because it's a farm or are they coming because it's a beautiful location?" The answer, he said, was both.
"We felt it was a natural extension," and that weddings were an appropriate activity, Lang said.
Auger said she only balked at the process used to allow weddings at KREBS Farm.
"I would have loved to be able to vote yes. I support agriculture, I support agritourism," she said.
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