By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — The Gilford Planning Board didn’t have much of a choice.
Members could have approved new conditions to a previously approved site plan that allows Andrew and Martina Howe to hold farm-to-table events on their property off Gunstock Hill Road, or they could reject the conditions and force the town into court for blocking a mediated agreement to settle a case before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Members chose the former option on a 4-1-1 vote, but not without complaining about the limited choice.
“It’s legal, but it’s just not right,” commented Jack Landow. “You can’t just forget what the people said they wanted. The people make it a community, and the community made it clear they didn’t want this.”
He was referring to an ordinance the town passed to place limits on agritourism. Because the Howes’s site plan predated the ordinance, the original conditions apply, as amended by the mediated settlement.
Abutter Monique Twomey had appealed the site plan approval, and the case went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Although named in the lawsuit, the Gilford Board of Selectmen voted not to participate in the litigation, so the case became a dispute between Twomey and the Howes. The court ordered mediation between the two parties, which led to the settlement agreement.
Meanwhile, as the case wended its way through the legal system, Andrew Howe applied for an alternate site plan that would reduce the scope of activities and comply with the newly approved town ordinance. The Planning Board was divided on the plan and had not come to a decision when mediation on the original plan resulted in a settlement.
Howe asked the Planning Board to table the new site plan until December to allow him and his wife to bring back the original plan, as amended.
Monday night, that plan went before the Planning Board, accompanied by a letter from Twomey.
“The Supreme Court case surrounding this application use has been fully mediated,” she wrote. “We have come to an agreement which includes a set of circumstances that I find acceptable and, therefore, I support this amended Site Plan Application moving forward.”
Other abutters did not find it acceptable.
“Just because she settled doesn’t mean it works for the rest of us,” stated Bob Pomeroy. “I have the same concerns I always had. It was rejected twice by the town of Gilford. I thought the new ordinance would put a stop to this.”
Ryan Crawford brought his entire family to the meeting and had his wife and each of his children speak into the microphone to show solidarity.
“This does not overrule Judge O’Neil’s original ruling,” Crawford said. “I can appeal this to the [Zoning Board of Adjustment] and I would win for sure, because of the court ruling.”
Planning and Land Use Director John Ayer pointed out that the mediation approved by the Supreme Court does, indeed, overrule the Superior Court ruling.
The agreement stipulates that the Howes will erect a barn in Gully Field, which is remote from abutting properties, with the natural grade providing a sound buffer. The Howes plan to build the barn themselves with harvested timber, so the agreement allows them to operate their farm-to-table events for two years from a tent on or north of the barn site.
Two other areas, known as Well Field and Buttrick Meadow, cannot be used for any events, including parking, with the exception of wedding ceremonies with acoustic music.
All events must conclude no later than 10 p.m., and the Howes must give Twomey at least a week’s notice by email when they plan to hold an event.
Amplified music is allowed in the barn, as long as it is soundproofed, with the west and south windows and the door facing the Twomey property to remain closed while the music is playing. Twomey reserves the right to file a nuisance complaint with the Gilford Police Department if activities violate the town’s noise ordinance.
The original site plan limited the number of events to 15, but the mediated agreement allows as many as 20, which conforms with the number allowed under the recently adopted agritourism ordinance.
Other stipulations call for the Howes to remove shrubs and trees and to maintain the area along the boundary to provide views from Twomey’s property, and to refrain from any forestry that would interfere with her views for at least 10 years. The Howes also agreed to keep any chicken coops at least 300 feet from Twomey’s residence, and to refrain from pasturing any pigs or cows on the Buttrick Meadow as long as she remains there.
The Howes retained the right to seek site plan modifications after two years.
“These are all things that reduce the impact of what was approved, apart from allowing 20 events, which is what the town approved,” said Chairman Wayne Hall.
William Johnson said he was distressed that the new provisions discussed for the alternate site plan are now moot, including stipulations on lighting and music.
Asked what happens to the tabled site plan application, attorney Ethan Wood said Howe would withdraw it once the appeals period on the plan currently before the board expires.
Residents have 30 days to appeal Monday night’s approval.