By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — After a marathon session of the Planning Board Monday night, members narrowly voted 4 to 3 to give Timber Hill Farm site plan approval to host farm-to-table events such as weddings on their Gunstock Hill farm, but there are still two lawsuits that could end that quest.
It took the board until midnight to outline all of the limiting restrictions that were put in place ostensibly to protect the neighbors from loud music, light, traffic, drunks, human waste and other ancillary things that could occur at a large gathering for a celebration like a wedding.
It fell to Chairman John Morgenstern to make the final decision, who called it a "dilemma" because of his concern for abutter Monique Twomey and some of the other neighbors who spoke against the proposal.
"I didn't agree with the [Zoning Board of Adjustment] decision, but that will be decided by the court," Morgenstern said. "I want to say 'no' but I will say "yes."
The ZBA decision to which Morgenstern refers is the controlling factor in the Planning Board decision. Twice the ZBA has determined that, in Gilford, agritourism and agriculture are the same thing and that the Howe's proposed use for farm-to-table events such as hosting weddings should be considered as "other commercial agricultural uses."
Detractors, of which there are many, including at least three members of the Planning Board, disagree and say that the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that agritourism in New Hampshire was, by design and deliberate intent of the New Hampshire State Legislature, different than agriculture.
For the first time, Twomey addressed the Planning Board herself and implored them not to grant site plan approval. She told them she grew up in Gilford, moved away and set a goal of returning.
After careful deliberation, she said she bought a house next to conservation land and in a residential neighborhood she thought was perfect to raise her two daughters. During the 2015 weddings, she said she would see people urinating along the property line while facing her home and hear music and drunken laughter at night that carried through the meadow.
She told the Planning Board that she started her own petition against the Howes proposal and had already gotten 71 signatures with the caveat that in order to sign the petition, the signers had to come to her home and see where the tent events were taking place.
She said she remembered one of the farm-to-table events held before the weddings and said that at first she was annoyed, but that she shouldn't have been because it was respectful and pretty. She described the weddings as drunks and disrespectful.
"Would you want that every weekend day of your summer?" she asked them.
In Timber Hill's site plan approval, the Howes can host events in a tent in a meadow abutting Twomey's property only in 2016 and are limited to 10 annually.
Events will be confined to the tent, which shall be at least 650 feet away from Twomey's house, and to within 150 feet of it to the north and east. The tent had to come down withing 24 hours of an event and all music must end at 10 p.m. No activity can begin before 8 a.m.
Beginning in 2017, all events must be in a barn that is being constructed about 800 feet down the slope from Twomey's house. Should the barn not be ready for the summer of 2017, the Howes said they would use the barn site for the tent. They have agreed to plant some kind of tree buffer but said they need to remove a few existing trees to prepare the site. They are limited to 15 events per year.
All music must be directed away from dwellings on Gunstock Hill Road and the barn shall have no openings on the side facing the road. Adequate toilet and trash facilities must be provided for every event.
Alcohol will be allowed by only to sold on site by a licensed agent with licensed bartenders. The board said no to a bring-you-own-bottle policy.
Another stipulation is that 35 percent of the food served by the caterer must be grown by the Howes on either of their two farms, although detractors said this was unenforceable.
The Howes will be responsible for all safety, police details if determined necessary by the chief, and for transporting all of the guest from the parking area near their home, which is not in conservation, to the event site.
Parking was something the three opposing members of the Planning Board struggled with. Jerry Gagnon said that parking facilities, whether they are structures or not, are not allowed by town ordinances in any single-family residence.
"If we approve this, it has to be graded and graveled," he said.
Gagnon also said that allowing the Howes to build a barn for gatherings and not have it subjected to sprinkler requirements is wrong. He noted that the town would not allow any other commercial structure to be built, even in a commercial zone, that would hold 200 people without sprinklers.
"I agree with Jerry," said Carolyn Scattergood. "We have 200 people at risk in a barn with a generator. No. It needs to be hard wired," she said.
Supporting Planning Board members and staff said the site plan will require that the Howes comply with all local and state fire and safety regulations.
While the Howes have their site plan, they still have one major hurdle to cross before they can begin hosting events in 2016. Twomey has filed two lawsuits in Belknap County Superior Court against the ZBA ruling that agriculture and agritourism are the same thing.
Twomey has also asked for a restraining order to prevent the Howes from hosting events until the suits are settled. The court has set a hearing for the restraining order for March 7.