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Farm Weddings: An Illegal Rural Tradition?

If your friends and family have been telling you for years that your farm would be an idyllic wedding spot, make sure you check your town’s zoning bylaws before you set up the big top and roll out the lace bunting.  In its recent 4-1 decision of Forster d/b/a Forster’s Christmas Tree Farm & Gift Shoppe v. Town of Henniker, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the Merrimack Superior Court, upholding the determination by the Town of Henniker’s Zoning Board of Adjustment that “weddings and like events are not accessory uses” to a Christmas tree farm and that hosting such events was not a permitted use in the Town’s rural residential district.

Forster operates a commercial Christmas tree farm on approximately 110 acres in the Town’s rural residential district; he also used his property to host weddings, celebrations, business, and educational events.  The venue could host up to 150 people, and was used for between five and eight events per year.  Per the Town’s ordinance, “agriculture” and “uses accessory to a permitted use” were two of the uses permitted in the district.

In May, 2012, the Town planner cited Forster, informing him that “operating a wedding/reception function facility” was not permitted in the rural residential district.  After unsuccessful appeals of the citation to the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Merrimack County Superior Court, the New Hampshire Supreme Court took up the case.  The Christmas tree farmer argued (1) that the wedding, business, and educational uses were allowed in the rural residential district because such uses constitute “agritourism”; “agritourism” is included in the statutory definition of “agriculture”; and the Town’s bylaw incorporated by reference the statutory definition of “agriculture”, and (2) that the wedding, business, and educational uses should be allowed as “accessory uses” under the Town’s zoning ordinance.

After examining the statutory definitions of agriculture and agritourism, the Court concluded, over a strongly-worded dissent, that, even if it were to assume that the weddings and like events were indeed agritourism, nothing within the definition of agriculture provided that activities constituting “agritourism” also constitute “agriculture.”  In its view, the legislative history of the statutory definitions of “agriculture” and “agritourism” reveal the legislature’s intent to not include agritourism within the definition of agriculture.  (The Court also noted that the legislature could amend the statute if the legislature disagreed with the Court’s statutory definition.).  The Court also declined to find that the definition in the Town’s zoning ordinance of “accessory uses” covered the business Forster was running on his property, because Forster failed to prove that the uses were “commonly, habitually and by long practice been established as reasonably associated with the primary . . . use” in the local area.  The Court therefore affirmed the Superior Court’s upholding of the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision.

The full opinion can be read here.