By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
CONCORD — There seemed to be overwhelming support at the State House for a New Hampshire Senate bill that would include agritourism under the state definition of agriculture but that would still allow autonomy to municipalities to enact reasonable ordinances that would regulate it at the local level.
Among those speaking in favor of SB-345 at Wednesday's Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee was District 7 State Sen. Andrew Hosmer, D-Laconia, who submitted an amendment that would strengthen local control by allowing local governments to limit the uses allowed under the definition of agritourism.
Lead sponsor Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, said Hosmer's suggestions were "redundant" but well meaning.
During his presentation, Hosmer said that in the past year he has become "quite familiar" with the rights of local property owners, but acknowledged that as a business owner, "like any business, you're either growing and evolving or you're going out of business."
He said on a last-minute whim last year, he and his wife attended a Farm to Table event at Timber Hill Road and found it to be a delightful event. He said it wasn't raucous and he left at 9 p.m.
But Hosmer also acknowledged the "balancing acts" that local land boards have to perform to make sure everybody's interests are properly served. He said there should be "reasonable parameters." Hosmer represents Gilford in the New Hampshire Senate.
Speaking against the bill was Gilford Planning Board member Norman Silber, who also voted against granting site plan approval to the Howes and Timber Hill Farm last month.
After hearing from the other property owners from the area near Timber Hill Farm and from others who don't live any where near it, he said because Gilford allows agriculture in all of its zones, he doesn't support a bill that could put the peace of mind of all single-family homeowners in peril.
Specifically to Gilford, he said he doesn't consider hosting weddings as agriculture or agritourism. He pointed to a private catering company, the fact that alcohol is served, amplified music and portable bathrooms with several hundred people. Silber went on to say that in Gilford's case the only connection to farming is that one spot on the property is pretty.
Specifically to SB-345, he said he doesn't think weddings are an accessory use.
"Weddings have nothing to do with agriculture," he said. "They (the Howes) have chosen to do this in the middle of a residential zone."
"If this bill passes, no one who owns a single-family home in New Hampshire is safe from encroaching commercial activities," he said.
Andrew, Martina and Zach Howe, the owners of Timber Hill Farm, were there and chose Andrew to speak for the family. He thanked Boutin for sponsoring the bill and said he and his family are very much in support of it.
Howe told the committee that he is "one of those farmers who has problem."
He said he's been farming for 40 years and his parents farmed the same piece of property, which has been a farm since 1741.
"Agritourism is in demand from our customers," he said. "They want to know more (about agriculture.)
Howe told the committee that while they have received a site plan from the Planning Board, it contains "significant restrictions to lessen the impact to our neighbors."
"It is not our intention to diminish their quality of life but recently my son returned to farming. But how do we support another family on our farm?" he said.
He said the spot he chose is the ideal spot favored by his customers, and the caterer has to serve food from his farm. The site plan review Howe recently received from the town set that minimum at 35 percent.
Howe said that the family doesn't have a food service license but they chose a reliable cater who is aware of the 35 percent restriction. "We're doing everything we can to abide by challenging restrictions," he said.
He also noted that the town is in litigation with one of his abutters and they are "being held up by them." Abutter Monique Twomeyis suing the town for actions taken by the Gilford Zoning Board of Adjustment when it refused to uphold a cease-and-desist order placed on the Howes by the town code enforcement officer. A hearing on a restraining order in Belknap County Superior Court is scheduled for March 7.
He reiterated that his family wants to be respectful to his neighbors but that he is just taking his business where the market is going.
"Farming is not what we do, farming is who we are," he said in closing.
SB-345 will be voted on in executive session and, if passed, will move to the full Senate for a vote.