By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — The first time Gunstock Hill Road resident Monique Twomey was aware that her neighbors were opening a commercial wedding venue about 250 feet from her home was when she looked out her window and saw them putting up a "large white sail tent."
It was June 30, 2015, and she said yesterday that she initially didn't think much of it because she thought Andrew and Martina Howe were having a family event.
"It stayed," she said, referring to the tent.
Twomey said the tent stayed until July 11 and the event she thought was a family gathering of some kind ended up being an open house for a new business venture that caters events like weddings at Timber Hill Farm, which she said she learned from a friend of hers.
Twomey is one of a few people who are at ground zero in a agritourism debate that has triggered significant local and statewide news coverage. The situation has created a bond between Twomey and her other neighbors as they fight against the project at both the town and Superior Court level.
"I'm not alone in this," she said, referring to her many neighbors and supporters who have visited her home and support her position.
Twomey said she had a tough summer last year. She said the first wedding was so loud that it seemed like it was in her living room. The announcer who introduced the couple and the amplified music that shook the walls in her 150-year-old farmhouse kept her two young daughters up well past 1 a.m.
She said the noise usually begins at 5 p.m. and the events last until around 11 p.m., although the noise doesn't stop there. Because there is no parking allowed by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests on the conservation easement, all of the guests have to park on the portion of the Howes' property down the road and near their home and be taken to the events by a hay wagon pulled by a farm tractor. She said with 200 people in attendance, the tractor can only haul a limited number of them to their cars at one time. Many of the remaining guests who wait for the hay wagon are intoxicated and loud. She and her children have seen them urinating outdoors while facing her home.
And there were six more events over the course of the summer of 2015, including the last one on Old Home Day, where she spent the day with her children. She said the children came home exhausted but unable to sleep because of the noise.
Gone were the sleepovers and visits her daughters enjoyed on the weekends with their friends because of the noise. She said the dust from the road leading to the site blew all around her house unless it rained. She said ash and grit from the bonfires along with the dust settled at the bottom of her pool.
She also noted the there are four large pieces of property totaling about 1,100 acres in the conservation easement that controls the Howes' property but that they chose a temporary site about 250 feet from her home and a permanent site about 500 feet from that.
She said she is against the barn proposed for 2017. Fire regulations require that it have four sides that slide open because there is no sprinkler system and that the Howes have removed much of the tree buffer in the area so they have space to build the barn. She said the barn will not be insulated, so there is no noise protection for her and her neighbors.
But, believe it or not, Twomey still supports agriculture and agritourism in its proper context and in its proper place. She said that wedding venues in residential zones like hers should not be considered agritourism.
"It's the wrong use under that definition and in the wrong zone," she said.
"My home was advertised (eight years ago) as being surrounded by conservation land in a residential zone," she said. "When I saw the ad and then the view, I loved it."
She said for seven years she was able to drive down Gunstock Hill Road and appreciate the serenity of her neighborhood. She called it "serene and tranquil."
Twomey said she is very close with her neighbors and most of them are also against the wedding venture. She said she knew there was a vacant building lot across the street but figured the most development she would see was the couple who owns it building a house and joining their convivial neighborhood.
When asked if she knew the Howes, she said she and her family were big supporters of Beans and Greens, the other farm stand operated by them on Intervale Road.
"When my daughters were younger, most of my pictures of them are sitting on some kind of pumpkin at Beans and Greens," she said.
Twomey said she is also upset because, in her opinion, the Howes didn't follow the rules that were laid out during the trial period that was included in the November 2014 letter sent to them by the Gilford Town Planner John Ayer.
At the site plan review hearing, Ayer said that his letter said the "use" needed to follow the traditional route for approvals to include a site plan review while the Howes have said that isn't the case. Twomey said that is likely why none of the abutters were told about the wedding venues and is also why the town code enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist order when she complained.
Although the Howes and Timber Hill Road got a site plan review that allows them to hold these events, Twomey and her attorney have sued the town of Gilford over the previous Zoning Board of Adjustments rulings that agritourism in Gilford is agriculture. Twomey had also requested a restraining order that would have prohibited the Planning Board to delay site plan review until her case was settled.
She has filed amended pleading relative to the restraining orders and the case is scheduled to be heard on March 7 in the Belknap County Superior Court.
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