Engaged, no wedding

Gilford selectmen weigh appeal in Timber Hill Farm on agritourism events zoning


GILFORD — When selectmen met in a nonpublic session Wednesday night, part of the expected discussion was whether to appeal a Superior Court ruling regarding the legality of weddings at Timber Hill Farm, an official said.
Under the heading of "consideration of litigation," the board anticipated considering their legal options in the drawn-out legal battle; the discussion was planned as a closed nonpublic session, according to Town Administrator Scott Dunn.
In a Feb. 14 ruling, Belknap County Superior Court Judge James O'Neill overturned a Gilford Zoning Board decision that concluded that, under the town's zoning ordinance, weddings were permitted agricultural uses at Timber Hill Farm. A neighbor sued to prevent weddings at the Gilford farm, located at 263 Gunstock Hill Road, overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee.
Abutter Monique Twomey took the case to court after the Gilford Zoning Board of Adjustment reviewed an appeal of an administrative decision, a cease-and-desist order dated Aug. 26, 2015, relating to a section of the Gilford Zoning Ordinance governing agriculture. The order barred weddings at Timber Hill Farm.
The Zoning Board of Adjustments voted against the cease-and-desist order, finding that weddings and other farm-to-table events at Timber Hill Farm were permissible under "other commercial agricultural activity." Judge O'Neill vacated the Zoning Board's decision, finding that the board improperly interpreted "agriculture" as defined by the town's zoning ordinance.
At Town Meeting last March, voters broadened local ordinances and created a new definition for agritourism.
For now, the ordinance changes made last year represent one of the avenues for Timber Hill Farm if the owners want to resume hosting weddings.
"There are no questions on the warrant this year to amend the zoning ordinance," Dunn said. "With the decision that came out last week, it would be an impossibility to do that this year."
Barring a legal victory, Timber Hill Farm will need to come before the Planning Board with a new application and comply with the newly amended zoning ordinance, Dunn said.
"The town is not doing anything this year in light of the decision that came down last week," he said.
Last year, the Superior Court declined to dismiss the case based on the Town Meeting vote to include agritourism in the local ordinance.
On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Andy Howe, who operates Timber Hill Farm, said the family had no comment because the case is still in the appeals process.

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'They don't know how I'm alive'

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Advocate for ending an ambulance equipment fund, Roger Grey (left) listens as the public speaks mostly in opposition to the petitioned article at a Sanbornton public hearing Tuesday. The petitioned article would discontinue the town's Emergency Medical Services Fire and Rescue Apparatus, Equipment and Vehicles Special Revenue Fund. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)


Sanbornton hearing airs opposition to ambulance fund article


SANBORNTON — The victim of a horrific equine accident offered a vigorous and emotional defense of local emergency responders and opposed a petitioned article that seeks to discontinue a special revenue fund for the fire department's emergency medical services equipment.
Jackie Riendeau required ambulance transport after sustaining severe head injuries in what was initially reported as a horse-riding accident.
"I was probably their first call of 2017," Riendeau said about the accident, which nearly killed her.
Fire Chief Paul Dexter said the absence of witnesses and Riendeau's inability to recall what happened means emergency responders still aren't sure exactly what happened, but it appears she might have fallen from a horse or might have been kicked by a horse.
In any event, Riendeau's recovery was considered nothing short of a miracle.
"It's because of these guys that I'm able to stand here today," she said during a Tuesday, Feb. 21, public hearing about Warrant Article 12. The article is titled, "Petitioned Article to Discontinue the 'Emergency Medical Services Fire and Rescue Apparatus, Equipment and Vehicles Special Revenue Fund' per NH RSA 31:95-d."
The majority of speakers at the hearing opposed the article, but Riendeau offered perhaps the most personal perspective.
"All the neurology schools in this country say they don't know how I'm alive," she told a hushed audience.
"They know what they're doing with their funds, they know what they're doing with their people," Riendeau said of the fire and rescue agency.
Elaborating in an interview, Riendeau said emergency responders arrived at the scene in 7 minutes, and she was transported to Lakes Region General Hospital in Laconia and then to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. She was treated for fractures to bones in her skull. After two or three days in a coma, she continued to receive medical treatment and then was released Jan. 16.
A standing-room-only crowd at Sanbornton Town Hall broke into applause after Riendeau shared her story.
The petitioned article found little support at the hearing, with Roger Grey, representative of the Concerned Sanbornton Citizens, a group pushing for the shift in funding, as its chief defender.
Grey said the fund, worth $273,004, could be discontinued and that money could go into town coffers to help reduce the tax rate.
"What's wrong with taking the ambulance revenue and putting it back into the general fund to help defray the cost of running the ambulance?" Grey asked. "That's what other towns do. Franklin does it. That's what we did prior to 1999."
Grey said 95 percent of assessed valuation is from residential properties, putting a burden on property owners. Sanbornton desperately needs additional revenue sources, he said. Discontinuing the ambulance fund frees up $50,000 a year in annual ambulance revenue for other uses, he said.
Mary Baxter, an emergency medical technician, said killing the fund is a solution in search of a problem.
"It's been so responsibly handled over the years, and it's made for the taxpayers one less group of things to worry about," she said.
Bill Whalen said shifting the billing revenues into the town's unreserved fund balance would not alleviate the need for equipment.
"It's like putting it nowhere," Whalen said. "Now what you're going to have is every year the Fire Department is going to have to come in and fight for every piece of equipment, anything they need. They're going to have to get it on the warrant. It's going to be a big discussion at the Town Meeting. That's not really necessary."
Former selectman Johnny Van Tassel said, "If we were to take that money away, now he does have other funds that are already earmarked for other pieces of equipment that are planned down the road to be purchased anyway. So if you take that money away, now he has to lease-purchase at the least or come up with the money. Either way, both are going to have to be raised through taxation."
Van Tassel said ending the fund would be "swapping one for the other, not saving any money."
Sara Dupont, a medical social worker who works in a regional emergency room, asked, "How much do we value human life within our own community?"
Article 4 on the town warrant seeks $260,000 for a second ambulance, allowing the existing ambulance to be placed on reserve, with the money for the new ambulance to be paid out of the emergency equipment special revenue fund.
Opponents of the petitioned article said it was not about a second ambulance, but many cited the need for emergency response equipment as a reason to leave the fund alone.
Dupont said, "When two 911 calls come in for a family in a car accident and a person with a heart attack, who do they go to first? Whose life is more valuable? Because without that second ambulance, we're making a call to another area, and we're going to pull that resource from that other area and we're going to delay response time. And I can tell you from in the ER, I know when somebody has had a delayed response time because their survivability rate is decreased, no matter how hard our EMS works. And that is a vastly different conversation that I'll be having with the family."
Dexter explained that a fire engine containing life-saving equipment responds to calls when an ambulance is not available.
"So the crew can respond and stabilize you, while we wait, which can be 10, 15, 20, 25 minutes depending on one of our neighbors being able to come in and assist us," he said.
Craig Davis, citizen's representative to the Sanbornton Capital Improvements Program Committee, said the petitioned article would undo years of planning and equipment budgeting. "This is smoke and mirrors," he said. "If this goes through, it's going to blow up the whole plan and how the town functions."
Davis said taxes will go up because equipment costs will come out of the regular town budget rather than from the fund, which is replenished by insurance billing from the patients who are transported. He also argued that emergency response needs will only increase.
"The people in this town are getting older and older. To go backwards makes no sense at all," he said.


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Sanbornton Fire Chief Paul Dexter speaks at a public hearing Tuesday about a petitioned article that would discontinue the town's Emergency Medical Services Fire and Rescue Apparatus, Equipment and Vehicles Special Revenue Fund. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)

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Sanbornton boards to huddle over wedding-on-farm flap


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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