Connecting weddings and 'agriculture' is a bridge too far, judge rules

By Bea Lewis

LACONIA — A judge has overturned a Gilford Zoning Board decision that concluded that weddings and similar farm to table activities were permitted agricultural uses under the town's ordinance.

In a nine-page ruling released on Valentine's Day, the court found that Monique Twomey had demonstrated by a "balance of probabilities" that the ZBA's Dec. 22, 2015 decision was both unlawful and unreasonable.

"From our perspective, we're happy the judge ruled the way he did. Our concerns were what type of activities could go on in a residential area and the impact it could have on neighbors," said Attorney Joe
Driscoll of Laconia, who represented the plaintiff.

After receiving a copy of the ruling, Driscoll said, he called Twomey to share the news. "She was very pleased," he said.

Gilford Town Administrator Scott Dunn said he couldn't comment as he had not yet seen a copy of the ruling.

In vacating the ZBA's decision, Judge James O'Neill found that the board improperly interpreted "agriculture" as defined by the Gilford Zoning Ordinance.

The ordinance describes agriculture to include, orchard, vegetable garden, nursery, dairy farm, commercial animals, poultry, livestock, or other commercial agricultural activity.

The ZBA concluded that farm-to-table events at Timber Hill Farm at 263 Gunstock Hill Road, that abuts Twomey's property, were permissible under the "other commercial agricultural activity."

Based on the plain language of the ordinance, Judge O'Neill wrote that he was "unpersuaded" that farm-to-table events constitute other commercial agricultural activity, simply because the events would incorporate food grown or raised on the farm.

Under the town's interpretation of the definition of agriculture, O'Neill held that it was conceivable that any commercial event would be permitted on the farm regardless of the activity's character, as long as products resulting from agricultural activities on the farm were used.

"The court concludes that 'agriculture' as defined by the Town of Gilford, cannot be interpreted to allow for such an expansive use,"O'Neill wrote.

The judge held that the proposed farm-to-table events go well beyond the production based activities contemplated by the ordinance. While the farm as a venue for an event may be characterized as agricultural, weddings involve little to no agricultural activity that is similar in type listed in the definition of agriculture included in the ordinance.

"The court does not find that the general phase 'other commercial agricultural activity' contemplates large scale events that have only minimal connections to the farm's primary agricultural uses," the ruling reads.

While the judge found that weddings are not permitted under the GZO definition of "agriculture" he denied the petitioner's request to award attorney's fees.

Twomey's lawyer had argued for his fees based on a claim that the ZBA acted in bad faith or was grossly negligent in rendering its decision, as it conflicted with an opinion prepared by legal counsel.

Attorney Laura Spector-Morgan, who represented the town, asserted that the ZBA declined to follow the advice rendered by counsel for the selectmen and the Planning Board, not counsel for the ZBA.

The judge concluded that the petitioners failed to produce evidence of bad faith or gross negligence on behalf of the ZBA. The court additionally ruled that the petitioners cited no support for the assertion that a ZBA must act in accordance with any and all advisory opinions drafted by counsel.

The ruling notes that the zoning ordinance has since been amended to include "agritourism" as a permitted use on properties located in the single-family residence zoning district. While the proposed use of Timber Hill Farm may be permitted under "agritourism," the ZBA found the use was permitted under the ordinance's definition of "agriculture" and not "agritourism." As a result, the ZBA's decision is unaffected by the amendment, according to the judge. His ruling only considered whether weddings and other farm to table events are permitted under the definition of "agriculture."

Attorney Ethan Wood of Laconia, who represents farm owners Andy and Martina Howe, had argued that the ZBA's interpretation of the zoning ordinance was both reasonable and lawful and should not be overturned.

"The decision by the ZBA simply anticipated the changes that both the Town of Gilford and the State of New Hampshire would later make to both ordinances and state law regarding the (Howes') proposed use of the land," he wrote.

Wood did not immediately return a phone calling seeking comment.

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Gilford sends school board's $26M budget to voters


GILFORD — Rebuffing the Budget Committee, voters restored the Gilford School Board's proposed operating budget of $26,019,631 for an up-or-down vote on March 14, setting up a showdown with citizens who want to see another $116,000 shaved next year.
The Budget Committee's proposed operating budget of $25,903,694 was increased at the deliberative session of School District Meeting on Friday, Feb. 10, to $26,019,631 for 2017-2018. If the article fails at town voting, the school district will adopt a default budget of $25,872,143.
Joseph Wernig proposed the amendment to boost the budget to the school board's higher level of spending, noting an exhaustive process undertaken by the school board to go through the budget line by line.
Wernig applauded the school board's effort and said its proposed 1.1 percent increase was reasonable.
"I've been living in Gilford for 29 years and three children have gone through the district, and the product that we put out — I hate to say 'product' but everyone treats the school district like a business — we put out an incredible product," Wernig said.
"I took offense to comments made by people earlier this year that we're paying for a Cadillac and we're getting a Yugo. We're getting a Cadillac in this district," he said.
Wernig warned that "people that want to cut the school budget" will be motivated to go to the polls.
"We can't just sit back and think it's going to pass like we did last year," he said.
Last year, voters struck down the proposed operating budget, leaving the district to run on a default budget.
Superintendent Kirk Beitler recalled that the Budget Committee "decided that our budget should be the same number as what our budget is this current year. ... That was a little surprising to us, for sure."
Beitler said school district officials asked what line items to review for restoring a lower budget, but the Budget Committee didn't give direction, he said.
The school board balked at cutting the additional $115,937 and voted 5-0 against recommending the $25,903,694 operating budget put forward by the Budget Committee.
The original budget, with $115,937 in additional cuts, would have resulted in layoffs, Beitler said.
"Truthfully, that doesn't sound like a huge number when you're talking about a $25 million or $26 million budget. But truth be told the school board again felt really good about the work they did. They worked long and hard to get to the number they came up with. If we go to cutting the $115,937, what that will mean is that will mean two support staff positions in our budget that we would have to reduce, and we would also do away with all increases in non-GEA — so support staff and administrators would have no increases, those would be pulled out. And we would lay off two support staff," Beitler said.
Challenged about why staff layoffs would ensue, Beitler said, "It's not mandated that that's where the money would have to come from," but he alluded to cuts already made.
At the start of the process, the school board trimmed out $296,421 by not paying for an elementary school librarian's position ($111,513) and swapping in a teacher; not replacing a middle school library aide ($33,724); cutting new equipment ($16,500); cutting technology ($60,700); eliminating textbooks ($71,984); and trimming professional development ($2,000).
A host of maintenance projects, including resurfacing of a rubberized track at the high school ($75,000) and stage and auditorium lighting ($85,000), went on a list of deferred projects, for $191,500 in savings, Beitler said.
The major cost increases facing the school district include $365,288 for health insurance; $215,890 for a Gilford Elementary School construction bond payment; and $86,303 for non-union staff increases, as well as $20,000 for psychological services and $74,445 for heating oil, according to the draft budget. Health insurance is rising by a guaranteed maximum of 14.4 percent, and the cost of that is $365,288 next year, a number built into the operating budget, Beitler said.
The school board's budget should be higher, argued Wendy Oellers-Fulmer, a "retired taxpayer" and former teacher who has a granddaughter in the school district.
"There is research that shows, strong schools, strong communities, real estate values go up. Your homes are worth more money," she said.
"To turn around and bash people who work everyday and work for children because they care, to me, is just an appalling thing to happen," Oellers-Fulmer said.
Fred Butler said, "I'm actually confused year in and year out why there is a level of disrespect from certain members of the Budget Committee." Butler rattled off statistics from the New Hampshire Department of Revenue, saying Gilford's school taxes are 152nd out of 196 towns with communities of comparable valuations.
Budget Committee Chairman Norman Silber said, "A variety of factors went into it," when explaining the vote for a lower budget. "No one on the Budget Committee has questioned the hard work by anybody who's employed by the school district."
School board representative to the Budget Committee, Chris McDonough, said the school board spent hours "dissecting the budget" and left no padding. "It wasn't until the 11th hour that this major bottom-line reduction was made," McDonough said. He pleaded with the Budget Committee to "put the past behind us, recommend this very responsible budget and stand with the school board."
A warrant article for the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the Gilford Education Association features an estimated increase in cost of $296,819 in 2017-2018.
Beth DeVivo praised district staff and urged a "yes" vote on the teachers' contract.
Critics pointed out that the contract compounds in cost, with $ 268,198 in the first year; $268,198 in the second year; and $ 245,392 in the third, for an accumulated cost of $1.6 million. Article 3 only asks for the first year's funding.
Article 3, for the teachers' contract, and Article 8, a citizen's petition to place the determination of the default budget in the hands of the Budget Committee, both prompted debate, but officials stipulated that neither, by law, could be amended.
The citizen's petition for a shift in oversight of the default budget spurred critics to say it would put too much power in the hands of the Budget Committee; while advocates said past abuses justified the change.
Butler questioned whether any impropriety had ever occurred, as he recalled how a "standing, capital item," the Imagination Station playground equipment, factored into a past default budget. Members of the Budget Committee contested this line item as a one-time expense that shouldn't have inflated the default budget.
District attorney Gordon Graham said, "What we can agree on is that there was a disagreement about that practice."
On the one article that was amended, the operating budget, the school board and the Budget Committee differed. The Budget Committee voted 7-3 to not recommend the amended operating budget. Member Kevin Leandro said end balance in the school district of $375,000 could cover the $115,937 difference, negating the need for staff cuts.
"Historically, we've seen $400,000, $500,000, $600,000, $700,000 turned back to the voters in surplus. There's absolutely no reason to add any more money into this budget. There's enough fat built into it," Leandro said.
Leandro also said school officials told the Budget Committee that all it has is "bottom line authority," so that's why members didn't recommend specific cuts.
"This is not sustainable to the taxpayers at all," he said, taking special aim at the collective bargaining agreement.
If Article 3, the multi-year agreement, fails at the polls, another article allows the school district to pay for a special meeting to reopen negotiations.
Voting takes place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14, at the Gilford Youth Center.

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Gilmanton teachers, budget committee parry over health insurance

02 14 gilmanton school delib

Michael Hatch, retiring school board member, reacts after receiving a plaque for his service, at Saturday's deliberative session in Gilmanton. (David Carkhuff/The Laconia Daily Sun)


GILMANTON — Nothing was amended on the warrant, but voters glimpsed a foretaste of what future school budget debates could look like at Saturday's deliberative session of School District Meeting, when teachers and Budget Committee members debated the cost of health insurance.
The collective bargaining agreement reached between the Gilmanton School Board and the Gilmanton Education Association calls for increases in salaries and benefits of $41,311 in 2017-2018; $129,327 in 2018-2019; and $133,211 in 2019-2020.
Malcolm MacLeod, school board member and negotiating team member, said the school district could face a penalty if it stays on the existing insurance.
If nothing changes under the current Affordable Care Act, in 2020, the insurance company likely would pass on a 40 percent tax to the school district, for $240,000 in cost, he said.
Budget Committee members voiced concern about the rising cost of health insurance in general.
Budget Committee member Stephen Bedard said, "The issue was definitely health care, and it's my belief, my complete belief, that this entire Budget Committee, including the people who aren't here today, do support the teachers. Actually, we talked about giving them an additional raise, a cash raise, hourly rate raise, as opposed to having a different health care plan. It's the health care costs that are killing us."
In a press release, the GEA explained, "During the last round of negotiations teachers agreed to a change in health care providers, a consolidation of plan options and a uniform cost sharing throughout all plans. As costs continued to rise, the GEA put forth a proposal in this new contract to switch to a high deductible plan of $2,000 for single coverage and $4,000 for a two-person or family plan. This deductible will be paid for by the enrolled teacher."
Teacher Erin Hollingsworth said, "Because we're changing plans to a higher-deductible plan, which is hugely different than what we've done in the past, the cost to the town is not any more than what it was in the past."
Hollingsworth said that the 85 percent share that the district now pays for teachers' health insurance will rise to 97 percent under the contract, but that the cost to the district will not increase because of the teachers' willingness to take on deductibles.
"I just want the public to know that they are in the forethought of this contract plan, and despite the Budget Committee not supporting it, I think it was not understood fully," she said.
Brian Forst, chairman of the Budget Committee, joined his peers to not recommend Article 12, the collective bargaining agreement with teachers, and he explained their sentiment. The Budget Committee's vote was 5-3 to not recommend the initial contract in January.
"We are seeing, every year, large increases both in the school and in the town in what we call human resource," Forst said.
"We're trying to get the school board and the town to understand that we need some concrete vision going forward on how we're going to try to control these costs," he said, and noted the concern raised "when we hear 97 percent of the cost being burdened by the taxpayer and 3 percent being burdened by the employee."
Forst added, "A $2,000 deductible, which is a huge change from what people have been used to in this profession, is a small number compared to what a lot of people are having to deal with in this day and age."
He concluded, "I understand it's a big change in policy. I get that you're going to a deductible plan, I get that there's cost savings in this. I understand all of that. If benefit costs increase, this is going to become a harder and harder discussion to have," Forst said.
Hollingsworth asked, "Would any contract have passed with you?"
The Budget Committee recommended a $10,653,418 operating budget, $4,500 less than what the school board put forward. This article, and others on the warrant outside of the teachers' contract, advanced with minimal discussion. The health care plan generated the bulk of the debate.
At the conclusion of the session, Adam Mini, vice chair, presented a plaque to Michael Hatch, a nine-year member of the Gilmanton School Board.
"He has been invaluable to me personally and the rest of the board members," Mini said.
Hatch received a going-away gift, as he is not seeking re-election and retiring from the board. His wife is school clerk Rachel Hatch.
"I got on the school board originally because I wanted to make a difference in my community," Michael Hatch said. "I wanted to give back. Between my wife and I, we have five children who have gone through the system. I wanted to do my part and help out."
Voting day is Tuesday, March 14, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., at the Academy Building.

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