Agritourism – State legislation is proposed to clear up just what is allowed on local farms

agritourismCONCORD – A bi-partisan group of state legislators has introduced a bill into the State Senate that would define agritourism as an accessory use that attracts visitors to farms to attend events like, but not limited to, corn mazes, eating meals, making overnight stays and otherwise enjoying farm activities.

The bill was sponsored by District 16 Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, co-sponsored by District 7 Sen. Andrew Hosmer, D-Laconia and provides a framework under which town planning departments can create their own ordinances.

"The most important thing is that it prevents towns from unreasonable restrictions on agritourism," Boutin said.

The changes to the existing law are that, if this bill should be enacted into law, agritourism would be included in agriculture and not as a separate stand-alone definition as it is now. It contains a purpose statement which, according to both Boutin and Hosmer, is such that it goes to the long-term sustainability of agriculture and the success of New Hampshire farms.

It addresses the "failure of local land use authorities to recognize that agriculture and agritourism as defined in RSA 21:34-a ... when practiced in accordance with applicable laws and regulations, a traditional, fundamental and accessory uses of land throughout New Hampshire and that prohibition of these events cannot necessarily be inferred from the failure of an ordinance or regulation to address them."

In preparation for the bill, Boutin said he put together a group of 25 people and included planners, the New Hampshire Society for the Protection of Forests, farmers and their advocates and fellow senators. He said they ended the series of meetings with 13 separate proposals that they were able to condense into three. By consensus, Senate Bill 345 was born.

Boutin said his bill does not target individual farmers and is not designed to redress concerns from Stephen Forster of Henniker or the Howes or their abutters in Gilford, but is a legislative and reasoned approach to the Supreme Court decision reached in 2013 titled Forster v. Henniker regarding agritourism and its definition under state law.

In that decision, the court determined that as the current state law is written, agritourism is separate and distinct from agriculture. In reality, said Boutin, it has been an obstacle to having communities address it at the local level, which is what he prefers.

"I think we've struck a very good balance between promoting local communities and their farmers," said Boutin.

Moulton Farm operator John Moulton said for him the bill "doesn't change a heck of a lot."

He said his business, which includes farm-to-table events and corn mazes along with an extensive farm stand, is largely supported by local people, second-home owners who live in the area year-round, and people who come to the area on vacations.

He said Sen. Jeanie Forrester discussed the content of the bill with him and he said that he supports it "as long as there is a strong farm-to-agriculture connect."

Moulton said he spoke in favor of the Howes during the first Zoning Board of Adjustments meeting but agrees individual communities should have the right to regulate through ordinance the parameters of agritourism activities.

"There needs to be a true farming enterprise," said Moulton.

Hosmer said he agrees with Boutin's assessment. He added that he was propelled to sign on to the bill as a sponsor because it has a lot to do with preservation of land.

He also said it was so some family farms could have to opportunity to expand their businesses.

While he declined to specifically address the issue between the Howes and Twomeys, Hosmer said he is aware of how the town of Gilford, which is in his District 7, is trying to strike a "delicate balance" between the rights of farmers as well as the rights of property owners who live near farms.

Hosmer said he sees a burgeoning market in New Hampshire for agritourism and some of the events that stem from the expansion of accessory uses in agriculture.

Boutin said its crucial to attract a younger generation into farming and agriculture and to keep New Hampshire's long traditions of family farms alive for the future.
He added that in the past 50 years, the number of family farms has declined from about 20,000 to about 400 in the state.

"These events encourage people to buy local food," Boutin said.

Both agreed that this bi-partisan approach is important in promoting a bill that cuts such a wide swath across the state.

"It will clear up some ambiguities and let local municipalities decide on the reasonable limits of any proposals," said Hosmer.

As to any effect this could have on the Howes or the Monique Twomey, Planning Board Chairman John Morgenstern said he hasn't read it and won't be commenting on it.

While the Senate bill still needs to go through the entire process of legislation, meaning committee meetings, public hearings, a trip to the House and its committees and its public hearing and then to the governor's desk, it could be a while for this bill to pass.

The Gilford Planning Board is holding a public hearing on Jan. 19 when it will decide if the newly crafted proposed zoning ordinance for agritourism ordinance will receive majority support and appear on the town ballot.