Locals testify about agritourism at NH Senate subcommittee

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.

Review goes ahead - County Sherriff’s Dept. to be questioned in wake of alleged sex crimes by former deputy

By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners have agreed to move forward with a request from Belknap County Sheriff Craig Wiggin for an organizational review of the sheriff's department by an independent organization in the wake of the indictment of a former deputy with the department for multiple sex offenses.
The deputy, Ernest Justin Blanchette, 36, is being held on $100,000 cash-only bail or $400,000 corporate-surety bail for sex offenses allegedly committed against inmates who were in his custody when they were being transported by him from various jails and courtrooms in Belknap and Merrimack County.
Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-ALton) said it was important that the department have policies and procedures in place "to prevent this from ever happening again, it is serious enough to have it looked at by an outside agency."
Commissioners agreed Wednesday morning to have County Administrator Debra Shackett talk with two consulting firms specializing in municipal affairs, Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith and Matrix Consulting Group, a national consulting group with an office in Waltham, Massachusetts, about the process for conducting a review. They said the firm which is hired will report directly to them.
But Wiggin, who was not at the Wednesday morning meeting at which his request was discussed, said he has not discussed details with commissioners regarding his request and thinks it is premature at this point to undertake any review as there are ongoing court proceedings at which many of the people who would be interviewed as part of the review will be testifying.
He said that the review should be conducted "as soon as is practical."
Blanchette was indicted in October of 2015 by a Hillsborough County North grand jury for allegedly raping a woman in an abandoned house in Bedford while he was transporting her between the Belknap County House of Corrections and the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women in Goffstown in early July.
He now faces eight additional aggravated felonious sexual assault charges and one felonious sexual assault charge in five separate indictments, including three involving the alleged female victim in the Bedford case. He faces one charge of coercing a second woman into having intercourse in an unnamed cemetery in Laconia.
The three other indictments include five separate charges of allegedly coercing other inmates into having sexual contact with each other while he watched. In two instances, the state alleges he gave the handcuff keys to one inmate so he or she could perform sexual acts on the other.
The most recent charges were brought by Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen in Belknap County Superior Court.
Blanchette resigned from his position with the Sheriff's Department in August after having been placed on paid administrative leave on July 20. He joined the Sheriff's Department in October of 2011 and was a police officer in Laconia prior to joining the county force. Blanchette had received a meritorious service award in 2008 while an officer in Laconia and had served as treasurer of the Belknap County Sheriff's Relief Association until his resignation.
A Raymond High School graduate Blanchette served in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining the Laconia police force.
Blanchette is being held in a state correctional unit in the southern part of New Hampshire. His trial for the single Hillsborough count is scheduled for late April.

Timber Hill neighbor shares view

By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN

GILFORD — The first time Gunstock Hill Road resident Monique Twomey was aware that her neighbors were opening a commercial wedding venue about 250 feet from her home was when she looked out her window and saw them putting up a "large white sail tent."

It was June 30, 2015, and she said yesterday that she initially didn't think much of it because she thought Andrew and Martina Howe were having a family event.

"It stayed," she said, referring to the tent.

Twomey said the tent stayed until July 11 and the event she thought was a family gathering of some kind ended up being an open house for a new business venture that caters events like weddings at Timber Hill Farm, which she said she learned from a friend of hers.

Twomey is one of a few people who are at ground zero in a agritourism debate that has triggered significant local and statewide news coverage. The situation has created a bond between Twomey and her other neighbors as they fight against the project at both the town and Superior Court level.

"I'm not alone in this," she said, referring to her many neighbors and supporters who have visited her home and support her position.

Twomey said she had a tough summer last year. She said the first wedding was so loud that it seemed like it was in her living room. The announcer who introduced the couple and the amplified music that shook the walls in her 150-year-old farmhouse kept her two young daughters up well past 1 a.m.

She said the noise usually begins at 5 p.m. and the events last until around 11 p.m., although the noise doesn't stop there. Because there is no parking allowed by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests on the conservation easement, all of the guests have to park on the portion of the Howes' property down the road and near their home and be taken to the events by a hay wagon pulled by a farm tractor. She said with 200 people in attendance, the tractor can only haul a limited number of them to their cars at one time. Many of the remaining guests who wait for the hay wagon are intoxicated and loud. She and her children have seen them urinating outdoors while facing her home.

And there were six more events over the course of the summer of 2015, including the last one on Old Home Day, where she spent the day with her children. She said the children came home exhausted but unable to sleep because of the noise.

Gone were the sleepovers and visits her daughters enjoyed on the weekends with their friends because of the noise. She said the dust from the road leading to the site blew all around her house unless it rained. She said ash and grit from the bonfires along with the dust settled at the bottom of her pool.

She also noted the there are four large pieces of property totaling about 1,100 acres in the conservation easement that controls the Howes' property but that they chose a temporary site about 250 feet from her home and a permanent site about 500 feet from that.

She said she is against the barn proposed for 2017. Fire regulations require that it have four sides that slide open because there is no sprinkler system and that the Howes have removed much of the tree buffer in the area so they have space to build the barn. She said the barn will not be insulated, so there is no noise protection for her and her neighbors.

But, believe it or not, Twomey still supports agriculture and agritourism in its proper context and in its proper place. She said that wedding venues in residential zones like hers should not be considered agritourism.

"It's the wrong use under that definition and in the wrong zone," she said.

"My home was advertised (eight years ago) as being surrounded by conservation land in a residential zone," she said. "When I saw the ad and then the view, I loved it."

She said for seven years she was able to drive down Gunstock Hill Road and appreciate the serenity of her neighborhood. She called it "serene and tranquil."
Twomey said she is very close with her neighbors and most of them are also against the wedding venture. She said she knew there was a vacant building lot across the street but figured the most development she would see was the couple who owns it building a house and joining their convivial neighborhood.

When asked if she knew the Howes, she said she and her family were big supporters of Beans and Greens, the other farm stand operated by them on Intervale Road.

"When my daughters were younger, most of my pictures of them are sitting on some kind of pumpkin at Beans and Greens," she said.

Twomey said she is also upset because, in her opinion, the Howes didn't follow the rules that were laid out during the trial period that was included in the November 2014 letter sent to them by the Gilford Town Planner John Ayer.

At the site plan review hearing, Ayer said that his letter said the "use" needed to follow the traditional route for approvals to include a site plan review while the Howes have said that isn't the case. Twomey said that is likely why none of the abutters were told about the wedding venues and is also why the town code enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist order when she complained.

Although the Howes and Timber Hill Road got a site plan review that allows them to hold these events, Twomey and her attorney have sued the town of Gilford over the previous Zoning Board of Adjustments rulings that agritourism in Gilford is agriculture. Twomey had also requested a restraining order that would have prohibited the Planning Board to delay site plan review until her case was settled.

She has filed amended pleading relative to the restraining orders and the case is scheduled to be heard on March 7 in the Belknap County Superior Court.

Videos Twomey has taken of weddings held at the site can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iEkpWsCef4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CLiURQ_A1Q.