Town Tells Christmas Tree Farmer No Weddings

Stephen Forster has owned and operated his Christmas tree farm in Henniker, New Hampshire, for over 35 years. A retired veteran, Stephen cleared and developed the land himself. After learning about “agri-tourism” (the addition of various activities to attract visitors to traditional agricultural businesses), Stephen knew his property would be the perfect atmosphere for newlyweds looking to make their big day special.

But years after adapting his farm to also serve as a small wedding venue, the town of Henniker forced Stephen to stop hosting weddings on his property, and can’t give a clear explanation why.

In 2012, Stephen was presented with a cease and desist. He was told that if hopeful couples wanted to be married on his farm, he would need to be granted a “use variance” from the town’s Zoning Board Authority (ZBA), and then site plan approval from the Planning Board.

Stephen’s variance request was rejected—despite “events” being included in the state law’s definition of agri-tourism. When the town couldn’t define the terms of their rejection, Stephen decided to fight for his rights in court: in February 2015, Stephen sued the town and went to the state supreme court. Although the court ruled against him, Stephen refused to give up.

During the town’s annual election in March of 2016, Stephen drafted a zoning amendment to include weddings in the town’s definition of agri-tourism. Henniker residents enthusiastically passed the warrant article on the ballot, and the Planning Board accepted the peoples’ decision, granting Stephen a conditional use permit after four years of fighting.

But the victory didn’t last long.

Just 25 days after the Planning Board’s ruling went into effect, Henniker’s ZBA revoked the conditional use permit, overturned the ruling, and later rejected Stephen’s motion for rehearing. Tomorrow—Friday, January 13—Stephen is taking the town back to court. The New Hampshire superior court will be hearing Stephen’s appeal to the ZBA and could decide whether the government or the people choose where they will be married.

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