by Edith Tucker
GREENLAND, NH – Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper kicked off New Hampshire’s 11th Direct Marketing Conference on Nov. 4 at the Portsmouth Country Club, co-sponsored by the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and the Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food.
“Agritourism means attracting visitors to a working farm to attend events or activities that are accessory uses to the primary farm operation, including, but not limited to, being provided a meal, making overnight stays, enjoyment of the farm environment, education which shall be instruction or learning about the farm operations or active involvement in its activities,” Jasper explained. Although this seems simple, defining it in state law has been challenging.
Three years ago, the state legislature tried to clarify the definition by stating “Agritourism, as defined, shall not be prohibited on any property where the primary use is for agriculture.”
The legislature recently added additional clarifying language in House Bill 663, which Gov. Chris Sununu signed into state law on Sept. 5, effective that day.
This new legislation states that making “use or activity involving on-site transactions with the public, including agritourism as defined, may be made subject to applicable special exception, building permit, site plan review or other local land use board approval (under certain circumstances) and may be regulated to prevent traffic and parking from adversely impacting adjacent property, streets and sidewalks or public safety. No municipality shall adopt an ordinance, bylaw, definition or policy regarding agritourism activities that conflicts with the (state’s) definition of agritourism.”
Sununu chose to sign the bill at the 35-acre Bedrock Gardens property in Lee because it had taken almost two years for the Lee Planning Board to review co-owners Jill Nooney and Bob Munger’s plans for a new point of entry and parking area to their 20-plus-acre garden and walkway that will be open to the public.
The Planning Board approved the couple’s plans in February. But then some abutters challenged that decision by suing the Town of Lee in Superior Court. On June 21, however, the court upheld the board’s decision.
“At the end of July, we learned that we were finally able to move forward with the full authority of the town and courts to finish phase one of our Gateway to the Gardens Campaign,” the pair posted on their website. “We anticipate opening on May 2, 2020 [to the public].”
HB 663’s prime sponsor was Rep. Howard Pearl, a Republican farmer of Loudon. Co-sponsor Rep. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, explained to Country Folks Grower that the new law helps to clarify the process that farmers and boards must go through and makes the respective roles of planning boards and zoning boards more understandable.
“Of course, an applicant can always go to court, but it’s far better, if at all possible, to be able to handle such matters locally,” Lang said.
In his remarks, however, Jasper warned that the laws governing agritourism don’t give farmers “a free pass,” since parking regulations, health codes and building safety codes all apply.
The commissioner pointed out that some people have suggested it might be possible to amend the law by quantifying how much cash income a farm makes and to use that information when reaching decisions on agritourism. “In a bad year you might have a total crop failure, however,” said Jasper, explaining why he didn’t like this approach.
“What you’re looking to show your city or town is that the agritourism part of your business – designed to get people to come back to the farm – is integrated with your underlying farm business,” he said. The commissioner also reminded everyone “It’s important to be good neighbors.”
“A Christmas tree farm, for example, might sell a small potted tree for summertime visitors to take home or have its customers tag and pay up front for their tree that they’ll come back to cut and take home in December,” he commented.
Jasper said an administrative hearing process for Senate Bill 412 (which was passed by the state legislature a year and a half ago) was designed to resolve differences of opinion between a town or city and a farm as to what agritourism is. “My decision can still be appealed to the courts, however,” he said.
Summing up, Jasper explained that agritourism is a good way for farmers to enhance their underlying operations, potentially making them more sustainable and more profitable.