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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Fed up with zoning changes, farmer considers homes instead

By MARK HAYWARD
October 12. 2018 10:28PM
David Giovagnoli has an offering for some of his beef cattle at the a pole barn on the 50-acre section of his family farm south of Interstate 293 in Manchester on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)



If you want to know what crop grows best on farmland inside a busy city, take a drive down South Mammoth Road and peek at the Giovagnoli Farm.

Not the 52 acres of pasture south of Interstate 293, the land on which a few cows meander while urbanized Mall of New Hampshire shoppers speed by on the highway.

I refer to a 3-acre lot on the other side of I-293, at the corner of South Mammoth and Mooresville Road. The land used to be part of the Giovagnoli pig farm but was orphaned after the highway went through decades ago.

There, David Giovagnoli is raising a bumper crop of eight three-bedroom, $300,000 homes. One house even went up on the site of the farmhouse where Giovagnoli grew up and his father died in a fire 10 years ago.

He might be planting more.

Giovagnoli expressed anger over a vote this summer by Manchester aldermen to allow a dense townhouse development in the neighborhood. So he has formally petitioned for the same zoning designation for the remainder of the family farm.

It’s an act of frustration by a family that kept its land away from developers, only to see city fathers endorse turning the neighborhood into a Connecticut-like suburb.

“The neighborhood’s going to change. I can’t stop that,” Giovagnoli said.

In the changing face of Manchester, his farm is the lone survivor of the city’s agricultural past. The pasture and low-rising barns are within eyesight of busy highways and less than a mile from the mall, South Willow Street and apartment complexes.

“Historic farms are definitely an endangered species, so to speak,” said Jennifer Goodman, director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance. And if Giovagnoli insists on building more houses — and that’s a decision he hasn’t really made — it would be hard to stop him.

For one, the land is already zoned residential; Giovagnoli is only seeking a smaller lot size to make the houses affordable. And how could the city stop him? Who is against affordable single-family houses?

Little financial incentive exists to keep the land as is. Most agricultural preservation efforts tilt toward barns, according to Goodman. That doesn’t help the Giovagnolis; they lost their barn in a 2012 arson.

And preservation efforts in Manchester focus on the downtown and Millyard, not farms on the outskirts of the city core.

If the Giovagnoli farm is to remain a farm, it’s going to be the family’s decision to make and the family’s loss to bear. (The farm is owned by an LLC that comprises four Giovagnoli siblings.)

Giovagnoli took me on a tour of the farm this week.

Giovagnoli stands on the spot where his family farmhouse once stood on Mammoth Road in Manchester. That 3-acre property, which was part of the larger farm before Interstate 293 was built, has been subdivided into house lots. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

You have to go through two sets of locked fences. (Trespassing has been a problem.)

Any city sparkle quickly dissipates once we step into a pasture and maneuver through wild grasses, gangly weeds and piles that chart cow movement.

The sky is wide open: no big building or trees to hold it back. 

We go searching for the cows. Giovagnoli suspects they are hiding in the far reaches, near the row of tall pines and turning maples that demarcate his pasture with Eversource property. But we find them inside the shade-cooled low-rising barn that has come to symbolize the property.

The family keeps a dozen beef cows on the property, raising them for their own consumption, he said.

One of 10 siblings, Giovagnoli grew up on the farm, which his father bought in 1949. They raised hogs; 300 at a time. Giovagnoli said he was the only kid at Memorial High School who milked cows every day. 

John Giovagnoli, who took up world travel in his later years, died almost 11 years ago, running back into the burning family farmhouse at the age of 85 to try to extinguish the flames that took his life.

No crops grow on the land we walk; it is only pasture. Giovagnoli said the family hays 20 acres farther down the road, and uses that hay to feed the cattle in the winter.

We walk south, and soon enough the land slopes down by about a foot. That’s officially wetland, and Giovagnoli acknowledges that about 90 percent of the pasture is too water saturated to build on.

But Giovagnoli said he could build a lot of houses on the five or so acres that are dry enough. Of course, that would mean bulldozing four outbuildings that house farm equipment and hay. 

It’s obvious he doesn’t like this business of ripping apart the family farm as if one would tear up the family photo album. All farmers wrestle with issues of development, finances, growing old and stewardship.

“My dad always said, ‘When you plant an olive tree you don’t plant if for yourself, you plant it for the next generation.’” 

Then he mentions his brother, Danny, will soon retire as a trucker and thinks he could make a go of organic farming on the land.

So does he really want to build houses, or is he just mad at the city?

“A little of both,” Giovagnoli said. “The original intent was to send a message to the city to stop. Now that they approved it, I don’t know.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturday in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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