By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — A woman whose property is next door to the spot where a local farm has proposed to have a wedding venue has asked a Belknap County Superior Court judge to "offer a definitive definition of 'agriculture' and 'agritourism.'"
In her most recent petition against the town of Gilford, Monique Twomey of Gunstock Hill Road said the decision by the Zoning Board of Adjustments not to uphold a cease-and-desist order issued by the town building inspection that would have stopped Timber Hill Farm from hosting weddings at that site was based on the town's former definition of agriculture, which she claims was ambiguous.
The challenge she posed to the ZBA's first decision not to enforce the order was dismissed as untimely by Judge James O'Neill; however, he left the door open a crack when he wrote that she could pursue her appeal through a petition for declaratory judgment, or a request the court define the legal parameters within with which two adversaries can proceed. A petition like this is barred by a time limit like the ZBA appeal was.
But what any decision means for Andy and Martina Howe and their proposed wedding venue venture in the long run remains muddy.
A bipartisan bill first introduced in the state Senate has now passed both the Senate and the House but with amendments. District 7 Sen. Andrew Hosmer (D-Gilford), who is one of the sponsors of the bill, said the Senate has not decided whether or not it will accept the bill as amended by the House but said they will look at it next week.
If both houses agree with the changes to the original bill made by each respective body, the bill will go to the governor's office. If there is no agreement, it will be referred to a committee of conference where the differences will be hammered out – or not.
The current law, which separates agritourism and agriculture, was passed in its final version in 2015 after a committee of conference agreed the two should be separated.
The current law is also the law Twomey says the ZBA misinterpreted when it decided a second time to not to enforce the cease-and- desist order. In its decision, the board determined that agritourism is the same thing as agriculture, which Twomey says is incorrect. She referenced a 2015 ruling made by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in a case in Henniker where the plaintiff was trying to host wedding venues at a Christmas tree farm and the court said it wasn't allowed.
Twomey is also saying that the Gilford town ordinance governing "agriculture" during this period said "other commercial activities" after defining narrowly what types of activities are allowed with words that refer only to growing produce – "orchard, vegetable garden and nursery," and with words that refer to raising livestock – "dairy farm, commercial animals and livestock."
She says there is a rule or general principal in the law that says if the above activities are listed after a word, in this case "agriculture," then the "other commercial activities" must interpreted by its most narrow meaning.
The town attorney used this principal, the town ordinance and the state law plus the Henniker decision to initially determine that the board couldn't hear a site plan review from the Howes because it was not a permissible use, said Twomey.
Twomey said that when the ZBA chose to depart from this principal and adopt a broader interpretation of agriculture and define agritourism as agriculture "their decision ... (was) illegal as the true definition of 'agriculture' in the town ordinance (was) ambiguous."
To further muddy the waters, when ordered to do so by the Board of Selectmen, the Planning Board granted the Howes site plan approval to move forward with their wedding venue proposal. Twomey also filed a suit in Superior Court challenging the site plan approval, which automatically puts it on hold until the suit can be legally resolved.
After all this, the town adopted a new ordinance that includes a definition of agritourism within the definition of agriculture making it an allowed use with restrictions to be applied by the Planning Board board during individual site plan reviews.
As of yesterday, the town of Gilford has not responded to the latest pleading. It is not known if the Howes will ask to intervene as they have in the previous three suits filed by Twomey.
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