Farmer Fights for Right to Host Weddings
HENNIKER - The definition of "agri-tourism" is up for debate in Henniker as a local farmer argues for his right to host weddings at his Christmas tree farm.
Steve Forster has been growing and selling Christmas trees at Forster's Christmas Tree Farm on Mount Hunger Road for nearly 40 years. He also built an alpine farmhouse on the site that serves as a gift shop featuring traditional German Christmas ornaments and decorations imported from Europe.
But to supplement his income, Forster began using his farm to host events including the annual Swiss Club gathering, as well as weddings. But last May, when a neighbor came across Forster's website that advertised weddings at the farm, the neighbor complained to the town that Forster did not have the right to offer such events on his property.
The town began researching the case and discovered that Forster had never filed a site plan review to get the necessary permission to host weddings.
Forster argued to Town Planner Mark Fougere that weddings were allowed on the farm as a part of RSA 21:34-a, a statute written by the state and adopted by the town that permits farmers to use their land to host a variety of events to help make ends meet and encourage folks to visit farms.
A letter to Forster from Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of agriculture for the state, agreed with Forster's argument that weddings were agri-tourism.
"We interpret on-farm weddings to fall within this statutory definition," Merrill wrote.
But based on his research, Fougere ruled that weddings don't count as agri-tourism and sent a cease-and-desist order to Forster. Forster appealed Fougere's ruling to the town's Zoning Board, who overturned the ruling 4-to-1 and agreed with Forster that weddings do count as agri-tourism.
But the board also said that in order to host weddings, Forster would have to come in for a site plan review to iron out details such as parking, traffic, sanitation, hours of operation and other details.
"They really just want to be able to tell me what I can and can't do on my own land," said Forster. "It's an invasion of my property rights."
Forster said he feels as though he's being made an example of by the town, and pointed to an email from Land Use Coordinator Nicole Gage to Fougere as evidence. In the email, the subject line of which said "Forsters now doing weddings?" Gage wrote, "It has been suggested that somebody needs to be made an example of (for disregarding the zoning ordinance) AND that the town needs to do a strategic public outreach and education campaign to remind business owner of Planning and Zoning and requirements, as well as building permit rules for all residents."
Fougere said Gage's email was not a driving force behind his decision to issue a cease-and-desist order, and he said he doesn't believe Forster is being targeted.
"I don't think he's being singled out to make an example of," Fougere said. "I think the neighbors have concerns about noise and concerns about traffic, and I believe we have the authority to have him come in and do a site plan review."
The problem, Fougere said, is that the language of the agri-tourism law is vague and different people have different interpretations of what qualifies as agri-tourism, and whether agri-tourism is exempt from site plan review. And it may not be until a case such as Forster's goes to court that the language becomes clearer, Fougere said.
Court is certainly an option for Forster, who has hired an attorney to help him navigate the planning and zoning rules, but he's having a hard time understanding why he should have to fight this battle at all.
"I'm following the law," said Forster. "The state set it in motion, the town adopted it, and now they don't like it."