Oct 4, 2015 10:44 AM
Rights of farmers, neighbors to be debated by state lawmakers defining agritourism
GILFORD - Despite widespread support for the concept of "agritourism," state law continues to grant a measure of discretion to local planning officials when it comes to deciding what farmers can do with their land.
According to the Union Leader, this has allowed some towns like Gilford to order farmers to stop holding events like farm-to-table dinners -- though a recent Gilford Zoning Board of Adjustment vote just reversed that decision for the Beans and Greens Farm.
Still, conflicts like these have led lawmakers to propose new agritourism bills for consideration in 2016, setting the stage for a renewed debate on the rights of farmers, their neighbors and local planning boards.
Bills are being drafted in the House and Senate that seek more explicit protection for agritourism, said Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, and Rep. Robert Haefner, R-Hudson, who are leading the efforts in their respective chambers.
But farmers are not necessarily confident that the legislature is going to get it right.
“Once again you have people deciding the fate of agriculture, and they're not farmers,” said Andy Howe, who owns and operates Beans and Greens Farm with his wife.
Steve Forster, the owner of Forster's Christmas Tree Farm in Henniker, took town officials to court over their rejection of his use of his land to hold weddings.
“It's a sin,” Forster said. “They're going to put farmers out of business, the little guys.”
But some of Forsters' neighbors have a different view.
Ralph Joyce, a retired attorney who owns and sells property in the area, said Forster's wedding business has nothing to do with agritourism.
“We very much support agritourism and farming,” Joyce said. “This is a guy who decided to open a banquet hall in the middle of a rural area that's zoned residential. He didn't apply for any authorization whatsoever.”
“People are going to be attracted by the country setting, the views. ‘And oh, 20 weeks a year you're going to be regaled by a live band until 1 a.m.' What do you think that's going to do to property values?” he asked.
Many supporters of farming agree some balance is needed.
Robert Johnson, policy director for the N.H. Farm Bureau says some limits are required so agritourism doesn't start to include nature-themed parks and resorts.
“We have a concern with the integrity of the definition of agriculture,” he said. “Going too far is only going to cause problems in the long run for farmers.”