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Chester evicts family of farmers, drives wedge into community

New Hampshire Sunday News

October 07. 2017 7:54PM
Jay and Angela Sweet are looking to place their horses as they face eviction from the farm they care for in Chester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CHESTER -- When Jay and Angela Sweet became the caretakers of Spring Hill Farm, a historic farmstead owned by this town, three years ago, it felt like fate.

But now the town selectmen want the Sweets out; their lease is not being renewed. And the move has ignited a social media storm in town, and led to housing discrimination claims filed against the selectmen with federal and state agencies.

Muriel Church, a longtime schoolteacher in Chester, set up the Spring Hill Farm Trust in 1996, donating her farmhouse, barn and 400 acres of land to the town, and providing an endowment "with the understanding that the property will be preserved as open space in perpetuity, and to the extent possible, as a working farm."

Just what constitutes "a working farm" is causing a rift in this southern New Hampshire town of about 4,800 residents.

When the Sweet family decided to move east from Kansas in 2014, they saw a notice on the New England Small Farm Institute's website, advertising a farmhouse for rent in Chester. It turned out to be Spring Hill Farm, where Jay Sweet had spent childhood weekends with his three brothers, helping out the woman they called "Aunt Muriel."

The Sweets jumped at the opportunity. So did the farm's trustees.

Muriel Church never married or had children. "The town was her family," Jay Sweet said.

In the Spring Hill Farm Trust documents, Church stipulated that the trust "offer the use of the house" to her cousins, Anne Sweet and Jane James, "or their children and grandchildren, in such terms as they and the Trustees shall agree."

Anne Sweet was Jay Sweet's grandmother.

On a tour of the property last week, Sweet talked about the deep connection he feels to the farm. The barn, built in 1851, was the last public barn raising in Chester, he said proudly.

"I love it here," he said, choking back tears.

Sweat equity

From the start, Sweet said, his family, including their two daughters, felt at home in Chester. "The townspeople were so welcoming," he said. "Because I was Miss Church's family. It felt like we were already part of the community."

Over the past three years, the Sweets have worked with the farm trustees to fix up the farmhouse, putting in a new kitchen and installing windows. They've built fences, cut hay and reclaimed a large pasture.

Sweet is a structural engineer; he works 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Concord "so I can get out early, get home and get something done before the end of the day."

He doesn't expect to make a lot of money farming. "It's tough making a living in southern New Hampshire as a farmer, especially now," he said.

But his family was happy to put time and sweat equity into sprucing up the place, he said. They've planted vegetables and pumpkins, tapped maple trees, and raised chickens. They bought a pair of Belgian draft horses and planned to offer hay and sleigh rides - just as Muriel Church once did.

The Sweets also maintain the miles of trails that are open to town residents for walking dogs, riding horses, and going snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

"We were progressing," Sweet said. "We were making it a little bit better every year."

Now they've run out of time. They opened their mailbox on July 4th to find a notice from selectmen that their lease is not being renewed. They were supposed to be out by Aug. 31, but they've paid their $850 monthly rent through October.

Cass Buckley said he and his fellow selectmen believe Spring Hill Farm should be a true "working farm," with activities that the whole town can enjoy. He said the selectmen "all have an idea of what an operating farm should be."

That could mean renting out fields for crops or animals, holding townwide events, perhaps using the farmhouse for classes in beekeeping or maple sugaring.

"It's a great resource, so we should do something with it," Buckley said. "Make it an attractive place for residents to go."

Buckley, who also is a Spring Hill Farm trustee, said the selectmen decided "as a group" not to renew the Sweets' lease. He said the Spring Hill trustees have "in our eyes, been mismanaging the farm for some time."

"They've produced zero revenue," he said. "They've produced revenue from the rent from a tenant living there, but nothing from actual farm operations."

And he said, "The people that we tend to talk to believe a working farm has product."

Angela Sweet said the notion that the farm should become profitable for the town is "ridiculous."

"It's a historical farm in preservation," she said. "It's being operated like it always has been when Muriel was here, and that was her wish."

Community roots

Brad Wamsley is a trustee for Spring Hill Farm, one of the original members. He remembers sitting with Muriel Church to put together the trust and conservation easement documents.

Wamsley said Church, who died in 2001 at the age of 98, "would be heartbroken" about what's happening. She wanted a farmer to live in her farmhouse and, if possible, for that to be a family member, he said.

The idea from the start was that the town would own the property and the trust would operate the farm and maintain the buildings, Wamsley said. The rent from tenants - about $10,000 a year - has always been critical to support the operations there, he said.

And town meeting voters have voted overwhelmingly several times to fund upkeep of the buildings, he said.

Wamsley said the Sweets are not like previous tenants. "They do a tremendous amount of work," he said. "They're always working to make it better. Making sure the fields are cleared."

And with two kids in school, he said, "They have roots in the community now."

For the most part, selectmen have discussed what they call the "tenant issue" in non-public sessions. But the Sweets' eviction has sparked rancor on social media, one resident even calling for a recall of the current board members.

When someone wrote that the town benefits from having the Sweets take care of the property and pay rent, selectman Dick Trask posted in response: "The taxpayers in Chester are paying $12000 per kid for the sweets kidd's (sic) to go to school. There will be a savings!"

That led the Sweets to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights. Federal and state laws bar housing discrimination against families with children.

Trask could not be reached for comment.

Angela Sweet said their daughters, 13 and 16, are "heartbroken" at the prospect of moving away.

"The worst part is having your home taken away that you worked so hard for and have done nothing wrong," she said. "This is my husband's family farm and we treat it like our own. We love it."

"It's strange that the selectmen are the only ones in town that don't want us here. And they don't even know us."

Buckley said the board's issue is with the trustees, not the tenants.

So why not let the Sweets stay until the town figures out what it wants to do with the farm?

That wouldn't work, Buckley said. The tenants' agreement includes farming the fields and having a say in what happens there, he said, and that prevents other uses of the land.

Wamsley said the trust managed the farm for years "with no issues." He blames the current selectmen for the trouble.

Moving out

Years ago, he said, a study found that putting Spring Hill Farm into a perpetual trust would save the town $250,000 a year in avoided development costs. That was why the town was so happy to accept Muriel Church's gift and follow her wishes, he said. "But history is gone, and they have different ideas," he said.

A few years from now, Buckley said he hopes Spring Hill Farm will be "a fun place for people in town to go, and for it to be as much of a working farm as it can be."

"It's a great resource," he said. "We just want to maximize its potential."

Jay Sweet says the selectmen don't feel the same connection he does to Muriel Church and her farm. "They just see dollar signs."

And Angela Sweet said, "The only reason for wanting to evict us is greed. Making more money for the farm is more important to them...

"Than the legacy," her husband said. "The history, and Muriel Church's wishes."

For a time, the Sweets were buoyed by the support from town residents. A petition asking selectmen to renew the family's lease collected 192 signatures, and there was talk of a special town meeting.

But last week, the family seemed resigned to leaving. "They want us gone and they want to start from scratch," Jay Sweet said. "They want to erase the history."

They've begun the painful task of finding new homes for their animals: Ed the friendly horse, and their Belgian draft team, Mike and Jim. "Once the horses are gone, it's done," Sweet said. "The bridge will be crossed."

They'll take only their 7-year-old yellow Lab, Laurel, and their cats. Norma the cow, a descendant of Muriel Church's herd, belongs to the farm and will stay behind, her fate uncertain.

Buckley said the first step moving forward is for selectmen and trustees to work together to develop a real management plan for the farm.

He said he's optimistic that can happen despite the hard feelings between the two groups.

But Wamsley thinks the matter should be resolved in court, with a judge deciding how the trust and the farm should be run.

He called the selectmen's decision to give the Sweets just two months to leave Spring Hill Farm "unconscionable."

"To me, what they're doing is just morally wrong and ethically wrong," he said. "For Miss Church, the residents of the town, and for the Sweets."

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