Family won't appeal court order to vacate Spring Hill FarmBy Chris Garofolo
Union Leader Correspondent
December 15. 2017 12:11AM
DERRY – The patriarch of the Sweet family, seeking to continue to serve as caretaker of the 400-acre Spring Hill Farm, said Thursday he will not appeal the judge’s decision to evict them from the property in 90 days.
Jay Sweet said he wants to be done at this point and does not plan on fighting the order that removes his family from the historic property once owned by longtime Chester schoolteacher Muriel Church.
“We want to move on, we want to buy a house and get out of Chester and start our new life,” he said. “We really appreciate the support that so many of the townspeople have given us over the years, especially these last few months during this emotional ordeal.”
Sweet, a structural engineer, said the decision has devastated his wife Angela and their two teenage daughters. The family moved in 2014 from Kansas to operate the farm.
“Who’s going to benefit from me not being there? That’s the question,” he said. “It’s not the townspeople, it’s not the trustees and it’s certainly not my family. Who’s going to benefit?”
He spoke a week after appearing in Derry District Court to fight the selectmen’s decision to evict his family from the Towle Road property earlier this summer.
Town officials opted not to renew his lease because selectmen said it was not a true working farm and was mismanaged. Instead, selectmen said they wanted to explore options for more community activities on site.
Judge Lucinda Sadler awarded judgment to Chester, but also granted the Sweets a discretionary stay to make suitable arrangements for the family and the farm animals.
The Sweets have until March 7, 2018, to vacate the property, according to court documents.
“It was a losing battle,” Sweet said, but he credited the judge for “following the letter of the law.”
In her order, Sadler said the Sweets contested the authenticity of the town’s actions but failed to establish the point that Chester “does not have the authority to make such a determination.”
The Sweets argued they are taking care of the farm, but the court noted the eviction was not based on any actions by the family.
“The town noted ‘good cause’ as the basis for the eviction. The law provides that good cause exists if the owner/landlord proves any ‘legitimate business or economic reason,’” Sadler wrote in her order. “The town indicated they are removing the property from the rental market which the court finds is a legitimate business reason.”
The Sweets also filed a housing discrimination claim with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights. They are requesting a probe into online comments directed at the family’s children related to the annual cost of their education in town.
That investigation is still ongoing, but Sweet said even a favorable action would not impact his decision to relocate.
“What they’re doing, kicking us out, is not illegal. At least it hasn’t been proven that it is yet. They are under investigation still for making a discriminatory comment,” Sweet said. “I can’t wait, unless I appeal and even then it’s not going to extend the time that I can be there … we’re just going to move out.”
Selectmen in June opted to not renew the Sweets lease. The family was supposed to leave the property by Aug. 31, but the Sweets had paid the monthly rent of $850 through October.
Chester Town Attorney Diane M. Gorrow said selectmen have authority over the property and opted to no longer rent it out.
“They wanted the farm to be a working farm, they wanted to have more access by other people in the town and having a tenant on the property was not conducive to … making the most of that property,” Gorrow said during the Dec. 6 hearing. She was not available for comment on Thursday.
The Sweets argued they have been unfairly pushed off the property.
A trust was established in 1996 and Church donated the farmhouse, barn and 400 acres of land to the town with the understanding it would remain open space and — to the extent possible — a working farm in perpetuity. The property was to be offered to relatives of Church — Sweet is related to her through his grandmother and he worked on the farm as a teenager.
Chester has been divided over the action at Spring Hill Farm, with residents taking sides on social media over the Sweet family’s rental of the farm.
Roughly 125 signed a petition to allow the family to maintain the property. Others in Chester sided with the board, saying the the farm is overseen by selectmen and they have authority to decide who operates it.