GILFORD — Andy and Martina Howe say that they will be presenting a site plan for their Gunstock Hill Road property called Timber Hill Farm to the town's Planning Department today which envisions construction of a timber-frame barn for hosting events and an irrigation pond.
The Howes have been working on the site plan since last year but the lack of an approved site plan for the property became an issue in recent weeks when the town issued a cease and desist order which would have prevented them from hosting weddings and other events at Timber Hill Farm until they obtained site plan approval from the town's Planning Board.
Tuesday night the town's Zoning Board of Adjustment, by a 3-1 vote, granted the Howes' appeal of the cease and desist order.
The Howes own Beans and Greens, which is a family farm and and farm stand that operates from a commercial zone on Intervale Road in what is called the "meadows" portion of Gilford. They raise many of the products sold at the farm stand at Timber Hill Farm, which is located in a single family residential zone and has been the site of so-called farm to table events for the last four years, and more recently the site of weddings which are described as part of an agri-tourism business of the Howes.
The cease and desist order was issued by the town's code enforcement officer on August 26 after receiving a complaint from an abutter regarding weddings being held at the property, which they maintained were not agriculture related. Attorney Robert Maher in his advice to the town cited an opinion issued by the N.H. Supreme Court in June of 2015 about a similar operation in Henniker, that said "weddings and like events are not accessory uses" to a farm and that hosting these events in (Henniker) is not a permitted use.
The Howes appealed, maintaining that their use of that property fell within Gilford's definition of agriculture.
The Howes also said that the the order posed a threat to their livelihood and the very idea of agri-tourism events, which prompted a large turnout of nearly 40 people at Tuesday nights hearing, including representatives of statewide farming and conservation groups concerned over the impact of the cease and desist order.
Atty. Patrick Wood, who represents the Howes, maintained at the hearing that the Henniker ruling doesn't impact Gilford, because the Henniker ordinance ruling uses the state definition of agriculture, while Gilford's ordinance is substantially different and permits accessory uses.
He said that weddings are not the issue as they are farm to table events, just like family and class reunions and as such are part of the permitted marketing and selling of products grown at the farm under the town's definition of agriculture.
ZBA member Bill Knightly said that he wanted to focus on the property at 263 Gunstock Hill Road, not issues dealing with farm to table, and was supported by fellow board members Scott Davis and Connie Grant.
'We're talking about weddings, gatherings of 100 or more people,'' said Grant, while Davis said, ''this (trouble) all goes away if you get site plan approval.''
Wood said it was the Howes' understanding that weddings are a permitted use under the town's ordinance and Reagan Bissonnette of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which holds a conservation easement on the property, said that the society had agreed that weddings could be held on the property.
Rick DeMark of Meredith, executive director of the North Country Resource, Conservation and Development Council, said that agri-tourism is an effort by farms to expand their offerings and make farms more viable and that such efforts have had a major impact on New Hampshire tourism.
''Agri-tourism has doubled in the last five years and is an integral part of today's agriculture,'' he said pointing out that statewide it accounts for $1.2 billion a year in income compared to $336 million for agricultural products.
''It's a key to diversification of income and viability for farmers,'' said DeMark.
John Moulton of Meredith, owner of Moulton's Farm, whose operation is similar to Beans and Greens, said that the state's farms are constantly evolving and that one of his most profitable ventures is hosting tour buses.
''We had one stop the other day with 55 people. We gave them all miniature pumpkins and tours. It was the most profitable thing that happened all day at the farm,'' said Moulton, who expressed support for the Howes' efforts.
Attorney Joseph Driscoll, who represents the unnamed abutter who complained to the town, said that the complaint centers on the town's site plan review process and that at a recent wedding with 100 plus guest there was substantial traffic and a bonfire just on the other side of his client's fence.
Long-time Gilford residents Donald Carey and Ken Wilson expressed support for Howes, with Wilson pointing out that the Howes have been able to keep the farm viable and deserve consideration for their efforts.
Debbie Brady of Gilford said that her daughter Colleen is planning her wedding for next summer at Timber Hill Farm and that her daughter's grandfather ''is thrilled to death'' with the idea of the wedding taking place on a farm.
The Howes' son, Isaac, made an impassioned plea for lifting the cease and desist order, saying that he had moved back to Gilford to be a part of his parent's efforts and that they run the last working farm in town.
Members of the ZBA said they felt conflicted about the decision they faced and were told by their attorney that the question came down to whether or not they thought that the town's definition of agriculture covers weddings.
Knightly, who moved to uphold the town's cease and desist order, said that weddings were a commercial operation and should not be allowed, saying that people at a recent wedding created traffic problems and were ''stumbling around in the road".'
But Grant, Davis and Ann Montminy voted "no" on his motion,
''It was a nail biter. People had no idea how it was going to be decided,'' said Andy Howe, who tossed his arms in the air after the vote was taken and expressed his gratitude for the support from the majority of board members.
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