'I'm irritated, I'm angry,' Planning Board chairman says about efforts to regulate agritourism
By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
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.
- Category: Local News
- Hits: 1490