What is a farm? Zoning laws need updating
EDITORIAL Union Leader
A Henniker Christmas tree farmer has lost before the state Supreme Court in a case that could spell the end for some struggling New Hampshire farms. Citizens who don’t want to see more small farms turned into developments will need to act to prevent that.
To make ends meet, Stephen E. Forster of Forster Christmas Tree Farm in Henniker has been renting part of his 110 acres for weddings and meetings for a few years. Henniker officials ordered him to stop, saying it was a zoning violation.
Forster challenged the order, saying the new business activity was covered under the state’s 2005 law allowing “agritourism.” Last week the Supreme Court said agritourism was separate from agriculture and therefore not allowed under the town’s zoning ordinance. Forster must stick to farming only.
The court’s decision is debatable, but by the time such a debate is settled it could be too late for small farmers like Forster. New Hampshire has many small farms that stay in business by renting their land for non-agricultural uses such as weddings, tours and meetings. Though state law recognizes this as a legitimate use of farmland, some local zoning ordinances do not. Those ordinances could put these farms out of business.
Forster’s case illustrates the insane logic of such regulations. Forster may operate a working farm. Should he truck in migrant workers and run a noisy, traffic-heavy livestock or cash crop operation, his neighbors could do nothing about it. But if he opts for a few weddings a year, his neighbors can shut him down.
The ordinance does not protect neighbors from noise or traffic; it simply dictates the kind of noise and traffic allowed. The goal is not to protect neighbors, but to force property owners to conform to the town’s preconceived, outdated concept of a farm. If we want small farms to thrive in New Hampshire, we cannot constrain them this way.