GILFORD – The tennis-match-like back and forth over whether agritourism is considered part of agriculture in the Gilford town ordinances raged on Monday night when the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted unanimously that it is a commercial activity allowed under the town land ordinances.
The decision will send Andy and Martina Howe back to the Planning Board for a site plan review for their proposal for farm-to table events and weddings to be held on their property on Gunstock Hill Road.
"Agriculture and agritourism are one and the same," said ZBA member Ann Montminy.
The decision was made after listening to the Howes' attorney, Pat Wood, challenging abutter Monique Twomey's attorney, Joseph Driscoll, and members of the audience speak for 90 minutes on the issue. Most of those who spoke for the Howes were not from Gilford but represented agricultural interests in other parts of the the state.
One man who lives on Gunstock Hill Road said he is opposed to the Howes' proposal because of traffic concerns. Another said he is worried the Planning Board is trying to put the Howes other business, Beans and Greens Farm Stand, out of business, but Timber Hill Farm is a separate entity.
"I don't think the Planning Board should be interpreting zoning," said Chairman Scott Davis before calling for a vote. "We've spoken twice on this issue ... and I haven't heard anything (tonight) that would change my decision."
The struggle between the Howes and their supporters and Twomey and her supporters is one that could potentially change the nature of the rights of farmers and the rights of single-family homeowners in Gilford.
Right now, the definition of agriculture in Gilford is found under ordinance 4.7.1 titled Open Spaces and allows for "orchard, vegetable, garden, nursery, daily farm, commercial animals, poultry, livestock or other commercial activity. Home farming is allowed in all zones."
The Howes, with the support of the Zoning Board, have said the clause "or other activities" includes agritourism. Twomey, along with the Planning Board and in keeping with a recent New Hampshire Supreme Court decision, has said it doesn't.
Wood has said that the Howes' issue is about one piece of property owned and operated by one family and that any decision rendered by the local land board will not have a "broad-brush effect" on other properties. He noted that the number of events is limited to 15 by the parameters set by the Society of Protection of Forests who hold a conservation easement on the property.
"Each [request] would be reviewed on its own merits," he said.
Those who oppose Timber Hill Farm's proposal fear that granting a variance and a site plan to allow them to hold farm-to-table events, weddings and the like would bring a sea change to the rights of residential property owners in Gilford.
"I don't understand how it can't have an effect," said Driscoll. "I don't know how [the Zoning Board] can say the right to say agriculture in one thing for one property and a different thing for another."
Including agritourism in the definition of agriculture is problematic for the Planning Board as well. In the meeting when Timber Hill Farm was denied a review, member Norm Silber noted that since agriculture is allowed in all zones in Gilford, including agritourism in its definition could open up single-family residences for all kinds of potential commercial uses.
Planning Board Chairman John Morganstern said Wednesday that the earliest the Howes could appear before the Planning Board is Jan. 19. He also said the Planning Board is working on zoning ordinance warrant articles for annual Town Meeting.
As for the petition submitted to rezone all of the Howe family property on Gunstock Hill Road from single-family residential to resort commercial, Morganstern said the Planning Board had nothing to do with it.
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