Gilford Planning Board debates definition of agritourism
Andy Howe’s farm-to-table application awaits answers to members’ questions
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL
LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — The question of whether a wedding reception with invited guests falls under the definition of agritourism, which aims to bring visitors to working farms, was one of the hang-ups members of the Gilford Planning Board had with Andrew Howe’s application to hold farm-to-table dinners and other events on an 8-acre section of his 188-acre farm.
But before the Planning Board could even take up his proposal on Monday night, it had to decide whether it was materially different from a previous site plan by Howe and his wife, Martina, that is the subject of ongoing litigation.
Howe maintained that, by addressing all of the previous objections and conforming to new state laws and local regulations, his application is materially different. Some Planning Board members, however, said the intention remains the same, regardless of how many physical changes have been made to the plan.
A state Supreme Court decision, Fisher v. City of Dover, found that a zoning application filed after the rejection of a previous application must reflect a material change of circumstances or a use that materially differs in nature and degree from its predecessor. A subsequent ruling, CBDA Development, LLC v. Town of Thornton, extended that ruling to include site plans before planning boards. In that case, the court ruled that the Planning Board did not have to consider a developer’s minimally amended site plan.
Howe’s plan for 285 Gunstock Hill Road eliminates the use of 70 acres that were included in the previous site plan, including a parking lot across Gunstock Hill Road. Instead, it calls for attendees to be bused to the site and dropped off. It also does not incorporate a temporary event area or the Buttrick Meadow lot.
Howe noted that the plan exceeds the 500-foot setback requirement in the regulations, with the closest abutter being 700 feet away and the furthest being 3,300 feet away.
The town’s site study committee, which had reviewed the application, determined that “it is less impactful on the neighbors than the previous application in that no temporary tent on the adjacent lot is proposed. All activities will be at the barn site and in the Gully Field which is rather isolated from all homes in the area. The impacts of traffic are also reduced since individual attendees will not drive to the site but will be bused in groups. This will also eliminate the earlier concern of pedestrian traffic crossing Gunstock Hill Road. Overall this is a better application for the neighborhood.”
Jack Landow argued against declaring the plan “materially different” from the original.
“On its face it’s different, but when you drill down into it, and I look at the intent, I start seeing a lot of similarities to what was previously proposed,” he said.
Despite his objections, the board voted, 4-2, that it was materially different and qualified for review.
Members then cited other concerns.
Acting chairman Carolyn Scattergood said her idea of agritourism is to allow the public to attend farm-to-table events, but Howe’s proposal for private events allows only invited guests.
Howe said a conservation easement prevents parking on the property, but farm-to-table events are “our most fun events. We would like to try to do something like that.”
William Johnson had concerns about a sharp corner on the road accessing the site, but he said wedding receptions are among farm-to-table events allowed under the definition of agritourism.
When the hearing was opened to public comment, former Planning Board member Jerry Gagnon said the underlying problems of noise, nuisance to neighbors, and traffic remain.
“How many buses will be going up and down?” he asked. “Mr. Howe can move it to the commercial location at the bottom of the road that he owns.”
While the property has been actively farmed for 200 years, abutter Ryan Crawford argued that agritourism would become the primary income source, rather than an accessory use, as stipulated in the law. Crawford, who moved there two years ago, said he would be there to oppose the plan every time it goes before the board.
Abutter Steve Legro said, “I have to worry about what happens if the whole farming industry is not able to survive. Farms are going to have to adapt in the future, and if Mr. Howe isn’t able to work the land, what’s going to happen to my view? It will become a blight there. He has a conservation easement, so not much [besides farming] can happen there.”
Attorney Joe Driscoll said the current court case involving his client, Monique Twomey, revolves around the Howes’ alleged failure to meet the conditions of the town’s ordinances, and he said the new agritourism ordinance requires parking, which is absent from the current plan.
“The same concerns exist; it’s a definitional problem.”
Driscoll also argued that the plan turns a residential neighborhood into a bus stop.
An issue Howe raised about the ordinance’s requirement that there be no artificial lighting also was of concern to the Planning Board. The town’s emergency services are likely to require lighting for visitors’ safety, which would be in conflict with the agritourism ordinance.
Planning and Land Use director John Ayer said the conflict might force Howe to scale back the hours of operation to daylight hours. The ordinance allows events between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Because of the pending litigation on the previous site plan, board members questioned what would happen if they approved the current plan. Howe said he was willing to withdraw the old plan, but Scattergood said she was unsure whether that would be legal.
In the end, the board tabled the application until Ayer could answer questions about whether the plan matches the definition of agritourism and how to address lighting, two site plans, old conditions that had been imposed, and the visibility at the corner on the access road.
While Howe’s proposal took up most of the meeting, the Planning Board also held hearings and approved four other applications: Stone Brook Hills LLC wants to make a barn and other buildings on the property available during outdoor events in case of inclement weather; Paugus Bay Marine Center and Storage Facility LLC plans to erect four boat storage buildings and a marine light repair shop; Pem Real Estate’s plans to expand four offices on Hounsell Avenue; and DGET Realty’s wants a building addition.