Sanbornton signs off on weddings at farms

'I'm irritated, I'm angry,' Planning Board chairman says about efforts to regulate agritourism


SANBORNTON — An unhappy marriage of litigation, local regulation and state legislation has left the head of the Planning Board here cautious and upset when it comes the best way to oversee farms that want to host weddings.
At the Thursday, Feb. 16, Sanbornton Planning Board meeting, Chairman Evelyn Auger sharply criticized legislators, saying they were "part of the problem" when trying to define and regulate "agritourism," and she delivered a rebuke of lawmakers' latest attempt to protect farm-hosted weddings.
Auger singled out for criticism Senate Bill 169, which seeks to define agritourism and adds weddings to the list of permitted agritourism events and activities. This bill, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, was heard earlier this month by the state Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee. Auger said the bill would take the state in the wrong direction by removing local control.
"The last three lines that they put in here is challenging the rights of every town in the state of New Hampshire. And I'm telling you I'm irritated, I'm angry. I think that they're doing the wrong thing," Auger said.
The bill concludes, "No local government shall make a regulation otherwise defining or restricting agritourism. This subparagraph shall pre-empt any local definitions or regulations of agritourism existing on the effective date of this subparagraph. Any such definitions or regulations are void and of no force or effect."
Auger read off this paragraph and said, "In other words, if this passes, we have no right to ask anybody to do a site plan. We have no right to do anything."
Auger said "it's very hard to work with" legislation that continues to muddy the waters.
Planning Board members also considered a Feb. 14 ruling of Belknap County Superior Court Judge James O'Neill, who overturned a Gilford Zoning Board decision that concluded that weddings were permitted agricultural uses under the town's ordinance. The ruling was a victory for an abutter to Timber Hill Farm, which hosted weddings overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee. A neighbor sued to prevent weddings at the Gilford farm and prevailed in court.
Robert Ward, Sanbornton town planner, said, "I really think that this is a matter that is not over with yet," suggesting that more legislation and the new case law from Gilford could affect how towns deal with weddings on farms.
"There are a lot of similarities between the Gilford case and what was done here in Sanbornton because the Zoning Board in Gilford overturned a previous administrative decision of the Gilford Planning Board and went forward with an approval. That's when the abutter, Monique Twomey, took the case to court," Ward said.
In Gilford, the 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, located at 263 Gunstock Hill Road. 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.
"I think that we would be well advised to watch what happens, see where this goes," Ward said.
At the same meeting in Sanbornton last week, Auger announced she would be signing a site plan for KREBS Farm to host weddings, after a lengthy regulatory dispute involving two local boards and that local farm. Auger conceded that she didn't agree with the Planning Board's decision to grant a site plan to KREBS Farm but added that she wasn't going to buck the Feb. 2 vote, from which she abstained.
"I would be the first to admit we didn't do a good job. It could have been easier for him, it could have been easier for us," she said, referring to Ralph Rathjen, owner with his wife, Kris, of KREBS Farm at 316 Upper Bay Road. Rathjen attended the meeting to receive the site plan with Auger's signature.
"There probably will be more cases," Auger said. "Before we do any changing to our rules, we're going to have to watch and see what happens in the courts. We're going to have to see which way this thing's going to fly." Auger again took issue with SB169 and its effort to prevent local communities from defining agritourism.
"This is something that somebody's got under their toenail, and they're bound that they're going to keep fighting for it and changing it, and they're off doing it in the wrong way," she said.
Auger also chided the Planning Board for its process of approving KREBS Farm wedding functions.
"We just put a site plan on a piece that doesn't allow it," Auger said.
The full Planning Board ultimately disagreed, after a back-and-forth review that also involved the local Zoning Board.
The Rathjens asked the Sanbornton Zoning Board to overturn a Planning Board decision to deem wedding functions commercial uses that would require a special exception. Instead, the farm owners wanted this use permitted under the banner of agritourism, based on recent state law.

"We had a process in place, and it didn't happen," Auger said, arguing with her board's decision.
"I do not agree with the decision. You're right, I should have appealed it. I didn't think to do that basically because I don't like to see two boards fighting each other," she said.
On Feb. 2, in a 3-1 vote, the Sanbornton Planning Board decided not to challenge the Zoning Board's decision and placed KREBS Farm under the state definition of agritourism via a site plan allowing weddings on the farm with certain conditions.
This move was facilitated by SB345, legislation adopted last June, which repealed an old definition of agritourism and inserted a new definition into "marketing or selling." Now, by state definition, under Section 21:34-a, "agriculture'' and "farming'' mean all operations of a farm, including: "Any practice on the farm incident to, or in conjunction with such farming operations, including, but not necessarily restricted to ... the marketing or selling at wholesale or retail, of any products from the farm, on-site and off-site, where not prohibited by local regulations. Marketing includes agritourism, which means attracting visitors to a farm to attend events and activities that are accessory uses to the primary farm operation."
Voicing exasperation over the drawn-out discussion about weddings on farms, Sanbornton Planning Board member Richard Gardner said, "We go back and revisit all of these things."
Gardner urged the board to "wait until there's something concrete to deal with" before reopening the debate.
In an interview, Rathjen said, "I think there is a need for educating local boards what SB345 says and doesn't say, and that hasn't occurred."
Rathjen agreed that SB169 was misguided, noting widespread opposition to the new bill. But he conceded that the topics of agritourism and weddings on farms remain subject to uncertainty.
"Everyone's trying to find our footing," he said.

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Overflow at Gunstock


GILFORD — "It was nuts," said Greg Goddard, general manager of Gunstock Mountain Resort, where on Sunday, for the first time in more than two decades, the crowd was so large that skiers were turned away.

"We physically ran out of space to put people," he said. "Traffic was still coming in but we had no place to put them."

"We are officially SOLD OUT," the resort posted on Facebook at 11:06 a.m. "For everything. We have parked people in virtually every crevice we can find, but we have run out of space." Almost at once a latecomer posted in return "Wow! Skiing at Gunstock since the '60s. Only have seen it this crowded one other time!!! Will try another day."

Goddard said that with more than 1,000 pre-sold tickets on Saturday, the turnout on Sunday was not unexpected. He said that both the tubing hill and the children's center were sold out before the day began and soon the parking lots and roadside space filled up. Moreover, there was racing on the mountain with 180 skiers and on the cross-country course.

With 30 inches of snowfall in the last two weeks and the start of school vacation in Massachusetts, Goddard said that "they decided to come out to play all at once." He described the fine, dry, light snow as "a western powder, the best we've seen in a long time." Meanwhile, the mercury on the mountain touched the lows 50s.

"It is a perfect opportunity to play in the winter," he said, explaining that the mountain offered spring skiing with mid-winter snow. "The snow is still cold so it didn't get slushy and the sun was shiny. There are a lot of tan faces around here today."

After a lean season a year ago, Goddard said that the resort is thriving. He said that sales kept pace in December and strengthened in the first of January, then after two weeks of changeable weather, picked up again in February, just in time for school vacations.

"We're set up for a nice season with still 50 days to go," he said, adding that the season, which ended on March 21 last year, is scheduled to close on April 2 "and we may go beyond that."

"it's very gratifying to see so much enthusiasm and a lot of smiles," said Goddard, who confessed "I've skied more this year than any year in the last ten."

02-20 Gunstock skiing

This photo was posted by the resort to show last Saturday's skiing conditions. (Courtesy photo)

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Public input but no public hearing as county budget is finalized


LACONIA — There will be public input, but no additional public hearing on the Belknap County budget, which is now being finalized by the Belknap County Delegation.
County Delegation Chairman Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) said he will permit members of the public to speak during budget deliberations, which will be held starting at 6 tonight at the Belknap County Complex. The delegation is scheduled to meet on the budget again on Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.
Vadney said there is no state law which requires the county to hold a public hearing on the final budget and that it has already held a public hearing in December on the budget which was submitted b Belknap County Commissioners.
He made the statement at a meeting of the delegation's executive committee which was held Friday morning in order to approve for a second time a $10 million tax anticipation note for the county. The second meeting on the tax anticipation note was necessary in order to satisfy the requirement of seven days public notice for a meeting, which had not been met in January when the note was originally approved, as the delegation was under the impression that the relevant law applied to meetings of the delegation, but not the executive committee.
Members of the committee agreed with Vadney's assessment that a public hearing at this stage of the budget process is not needed, which stands in contrast to the approach used by former Delegation Chairman Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), who last year did not allow public input during the budget deliberations by delegation. But he did hold a public hearing on the final budget, which was attended by an overflow crowd, many of whom showed up to protest the proposed budget cuts to outside agencies, and saw several exchanges between members of the public and legislators.
County Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton), who attended the executive committee meeting, said he is hoping that that a tour of the Community Corrections facility which is under construction and is scheduled at 5 p.m. today will convince members of the delegation that the proposed $28 million county budget should not be cut by over $1 million, as has been suggested by some members of the delegation.
He has maintained that the cuts suggested by some delegation members are impossible and could leave the county without enough money to staff the corrections facility.
He says that all members of the delegation who voted for the $8 million bond issue in 2015 were aware that there would be additional costs for staffing and that it is imperative that the budget not be cut.
Vadney, who said at the time that the bond issue was passed that the county should look at cuts in other departments to offset the increased personnel costs in the Corrections Department, has expressed support for an idea put forth by Rep. Ray Howard, delegation vice chairman, that the budget be set at $26.8 million, which he said represents an increase of about 4 percent over what actual spending was in 2016.
His proposal calls for cutting at least $220,000 in funding for outside agencies, but other cuts were not specified.
Commissioners have proposed a $28,034,331 budget this year, which will see the amount to be raised by property taxes revert to the $13,837,174 raised in 2015, which is about $875,000 more than was raised last year. In order keep the increase to that level, the commissioners agreed to use $2,183,657 from the undesignated fund balance.
The proposed amount to be raised by taxes is 6.31 percent higher than last year's $12,963,440, a 6.74 decrease from 2015. The bulk of that decrease came from using an additional $605,000 of fund balance to reduce taxes which the delegation adopted over objections by commissioners, raising the amount of the surplus used to reduce taxes to $2,380,000 last year.
The proposed budget numbers have since changed as the commission has added some $136,000 to budget lines which department heads have asked for in recent weeks, as well as the $17,000 estimated impact of a contract with Teamsters Local 633 which the delegation approved recently.
Members of the delegation have been critical of the budget prepared by commissioners, noting that commissioners only recently announced $850,000 in additional operational savings in 2016, after initially having only $250,000 in that line in the budget.
Commissioners have maintained that they have presented a frugal budget and that Belknap County taxpayers pay the lowest amount in property taxes to the county of any of the comparable sized counties in the state.

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