|Chairman Neil Faiman, members: Carol Roberts, Bill Carnduff, Joe Poisson, and Andy Hoar.
Chairman Faiman called the meeting to order at 7:30 p.m.
After review, a MOTION was made by Ms. Roberts and SECONDED by Mr. Hoar to approve the minutes of April 9, 2013 as written.
Voting: 5 ayes; motion carried unanimously.
Chairman Faiman explained that Hilltop Cafe (applicant) and Senator Development, LLC (owner) have applied for a variance to section 6.1 of the Wilton Zoning Ordinance, to permit the use of a portion of Lot F-98-1, 195 Isaac Frye Highway (Four Corners Farm) as a café. Specifically, the purpose of the requested variance is to amend the conditions of a variance previously granted on June 8, 2010, in Wilton ZBA Case 6/8/10-1, in order to expand the permitted seating and hours of operation and make certain alterations to the exterior of the building. He also explained the procedure of the meeting and introduced the members of the Board.
Mr. Geiger appeared before the Board for the applicant and explained that he came before the Zoning Board in 2010 for a variance to open the Hilltop Café with specific seating numbers based on the septic system capacity and times of operation. He was granted the variance and since then they have upgraded the septic system and have realized that they could fill more seats and could use expanded hours. He explained that often there are different time requirements depending on the season. Also he noted that he asked for a building permit to expand the kitchen, but he did not realize that his previous variance had a stipulation that any exterior changes be approved by the Zoning Board so he is requesting that the changes that have already been made be approved retroactively. He explained that they removed the garage doors and put in nice doors and windows on both sides of the garage. He further explained that the reason for his request this evening is that they have realized that the café is the most effective entry to the farm to bring in business and the community. He noted that the farm has protected about 145 acres that are now non developable which has allowed the environment on the hill to achieve a certain stability in the landscape. He stated that the café and the farm is an entry way for families to come and enjoy nature. Also he noted that the farm needs to keep enough business coming in in order to provide the funds to keep the farm running. He explained that other local towns are working on changing their zoning so that retail business is part of the farming business. He stated that the community loves it as it is a nice place to be able to meet your friends. He stated that he does not feel that it is not a nuisance but rather a service to the community. He noted that last summer they held some concerts which turned out to be bigger than they anticipated so they will no longer be holding concerts.
In response to a question from Mr. Faiman, Mr. Geiger confirmed that the café has already expanded to the size for which he is now requesting a variance.
In response to a question from Mr. Poisson, Mr. Geiger stated that they will not be employing any more people than they have now as they have already expanded and because 10 more seats is not a significant increase; only 2.5 tables.
In response to a question from Ms. Roberts, Mr. Geiger stated that last summer they were open for some dinner hours and that the footprint of the building has not changed.
In response to a question from Mr. Poisson, Mr. Geiger noted that he included a statement as to the septic systems capabilities in the application.
In response to a question from Mr. Hoar, Mr. Geiger stated that when he got the building permit for the outside building improvements he did not think about the restrictions of the original variance but he did get permission from the other Boards as required such as the Heritage Commission.
Mr. Faiman called for questions from the public.
Stanley Young, of the Wilton Heritage Commission, explained that the Heritage Commission is responsible for monitoring the exterior of the buildings and read a portion of the rules regarding changes to Heritage properties. Mr. Faiman noted that this information is appropriate to submit later in the meeting.
Spencer Brookes, of the Wilton Conservation Commission, noting that his responsibility is for the land, not the farmstead and questioned if there will be overflow parking and if it follows NRCS guidelines. Mr. Geiger explained that the overflow parking is currently for farm employees and noted that the farm will probably be going before the Planning Board to resolve the parking issue.
In response to a question from Paul Lemay, farm neighbor, Mr. Geiger stated that he already put the additional seating in and they already have enough space for parking. He noted that he is looking for the variance to retroactively approve the additional seating and exterior changes and allow for more hours of operation.
In response to a question from a Pierce Lane resident, Mr. Geiger stated that no traffic study has been done but he would like to put more signage up to perhaps alert drivers to slow down and noted that they will be taking some trees down to provide a 400 foot line of sight. He also explained that when he got permission to have 24 seats after upgrading his septic system he added the seats as driven by demand and now he has reached the limit on how many seats they can have. He also stated that outside lighting will need to be addressed but noted that the previously approved plan included downcast lighting.
The Pierce Lane resident stated that she thinks the whole concept is good but questions if it is too much activity in this area. Mr. Geiger explained that in order to have the farm they must have an income source to help fund it.
In response to a question from Laura, Abbot Hill resident, Mr. Geiger stated that he is not planning on expanding anything further but the farm stand. In response to another question, Mr. Geiger stated that he feels that the farm and café will improve property values because of the access to the goods which the farm offers. Laura stated that she has spoken to assessors and they believe that increased signage and traffic will decrease property values. Mr. Geiger noted that he knows of several homes that have been bought in the area because of the draw of the farm and he has spoken to realtors who have stated that it will increase property values.
In response to a question from Mark Easton, Pierce Lane resident, Mr. Geiger explained that by securing easements on fields and forests the neighborhood landscape is stabilized because prospective buyers know that the land will not be developed. Mr. Easton noted that the easements are part of the farm not the café. Mr. Faiman explained that he believes that Mr. Geiger feels that the café is a valuable and necessary adjunct to the farm and therefore believes that the values of the farm flow into the values of the café.
In response to a question from Mr. Lect, Mr. Geiger explained that the café brings more people to the farm rather than just revenue through the café.
In response to a question from the Peirce Lane resident, Mr. Faiman explained that farm stands are a traditional part of agricultural as defined by the state, so therefore the farm stand qualifies as agricultural business.
In response to a question from Kurt Gile, Abbott Hill Road resident, Mr. Geiger explained that they do not have plans yet for ADA compliance and they have not applied for a driveway permit across the road yet but they would like to.
In response to another question from Mr. Gile, Mr. Geiger stated that he does not know much about taxes but he is just trying to keep up the farm and the buildings and feed people.
In response to a question from an Abbot Hill resident, Mr. Geiger stated that the restaurant could be on Main Street but people like to come to the farm and noted that the commercial activities at the farm fall under the agricultural guidelines. Mr. Geiger stated that he is not in the business of running an auxiliary business as well and noted that the café and the farm increases the value for the customer to take a trip up the hill.
In response to a question from Dave Bower, of 485 Abbott Hill Road, Mr. Faiman explained that the café received a variance and then extended their variance and now needs to apply for a new variance. He further explained that if they do not receive the variance the town can require them to come back into conformance. In the future if they extend themselves beyond their variance they will need to come back to the Board again and also noted that anytime anyone receives a variance there is a possibility they could extend beyond the restrictions in which case the town would need to provide enforcement of the approved variance. Mr. Geiger noted that any further expansion will require enlarging the building which could not happen without going before all the Boards of the town.
In response to a question from Mr. Poisson, Mr. Geiger confirmed that the septic has been approved by the state.
Chairman Faiman invited the public to comment with their opinions on the application.
Spencer Brookes noted that the modifications that have been made are within the easement and are an improvement. He also noted that if the farm had not procured the easements then the area would be filled with housing lots which would certainly generate more traffic.
Andrew Kennedy stated that he is a Wilton resident and one of the owners of the farm and noted that the farm used to be in much worse shape including having chained pit bulls and vines covering the entrance to the front door. He stated that he has been working on clearing for improved sight lines. He explained that it is always in their consciousness to become better neighbors. He noted that he is trying to create a legacy so that when he retires another farmer will step in. He then told a story about how he worked with a neighbor who had an issue with his manure pile and how he covered the pile to solve the issue. He invited anyone with an issue to come speak to him so they could work it out.
Mr. Shepardson, Building Inspector, reminded the public that this is a residential/agricultural zone and noted that agriculture is not subservient to the residences.
Mr. Halpern, of Blueberry Lane, stated that he thinks the café has improved his quality of life and noted that keeping small commercial activities out of residential areas kills communities. He stated that the farm and the café need to be kept vital and noted that the reason he lives in an area like Wilton is because it allows him to live by a farm with a café.
Dave Gage, of Abbott Hill Road, stated that he appreciates very much what the farm and café have brought to the area.
Jane Constant, resident of Wilton and CSA member, stated that this farm is the best in the state because they support the welfare of the animals, and the community and noted that she wants to support the farm.
In response to a question from Carol Roberts, Mr. Geiger stated that the CSA started in 1986, one of the first two in the country, and has 105 families. He noted that they also sell milk and bread to walk in customers. He further explained that the CSA was in existence long before the café and has expanded to include milk and cheese. He stated that the CSA stocks two days a week and the milk and dairy is available daily but the farm stand is now only open from 7 am to 7 pm seven days a week where before it was never closed.
In response to a question from Mr. Hoar, Mr. Geiger stated that the farm stand has 200 to 250 customers and they might get 100 customers a day.
Mrs. McDonough, Pine Hill School Administrator, stated that the families of the children have been in support of the café and noted that they are able to include the farm animals into their curriculum. She further explained that they have been trying to alert their school community as to the traffic sensitivities on the hill so some of the traffic issues may start at the school not the farm.
Brad Miller, of Gage Road, explained that he moved to Wilton from the Midwest because it is a community and that he walks and runs with students and he has never had a traffic issue and he feels safer because he knows his neighbors. He noted that there are current properties on the hill available to subdivide and that the farm helps keep the character of the area which does not decrease the value of one's home.
Mickey Peterson, Wilton resident and real estate agent, explained that everyone who came to look at a recent property for sale near the farm were excited that the farm and café were there; it is not impacting property values in a negative way.
Rachel Miller, new Wilton resident, explained that the farm is one of the reasons why she bought in Wilton and she feels that it exemplifies the quality of life in New Hampshire.
A member of the audience expressed concern about the fact that the café has gone beyond the rules of the variance even though she is in favor of the farm.
Mike Anderson, Abbott Hill Road resident, stated that he is strongly in favor in supporting the application noting that the issue is not the farm but the café which is part of the farm and the food is tremendous. He stated that it is a social hub and it feels like it is still too small but is at its limit. He feels that the retroactive approval should be supported. He also noted that it is becoming a landmark.
Guy Johnson, new resident to Mason Road, explained that he bought the property because it is near the school and conservation land and he thinks the café fits in perfectly with the farm. He also noted that the farm is an organic farm so there is no concern about pesticides for pets and children.
Charlie McGettigan, Wilton resident, noted that his grandmother was born at the farmhouse and stated that he appreciates Mr. Geiger and the work he has done.
Chairman Faiman reviewed a letter submitted by James and Sandra Fisher to the Board prior to the meeting explaining that they have enjoyed the farm but are against the variance and the reasons why.
Mr. McDonough, former Wilton Selectman, spoke in favor of the application stating that the community has supported Mr. Geiger, 24 seats is a small restaurant, he has never seen a traffic issue at the farm and he drives Abbott Hill Road twice a day, and the food is good, clean, and attracts outside visitors. He believes that the café and farm is an asset for the community and worth protecting.
Jane Constant, CSA member and Wilton restaurant, spoke in favor of the farm, stating that 24 seats is not a lot of seats, they have not seen an increase in traffic, and the community needs the farm for the food and the care of the animals.
Mr. Levesque, abutter to the café, stated that the traffic and speeds have increased on Isaac Frye Road but it is not due to the farm and is a law enforcement issue not that of the café's. He stated that they are great neighbors and he loves the animals.
Andrew Kennedy clarified that there will be no more concerts at the farm and he does not think BYOB is a good idea.
Mr. Halpern, of Berry Lane, stated that the variance needs to be considered on its merit, not whether or not Mr. Geiger deserves it because he implemented the increase without approval, and the application has merit. He also stated that it is not appropriate to compare an increase in 10 people to growing to the size of Kimballs, and he trusts that the Board would not allow such a thing to happen.
Mr. Kennedy noted that he runs the farm and is only a café patron but his understanding is that there will be no more BYOB.
An abutter stated that the residents on the hill are in support of the farm and the CSA but are against the commercialization of the farm and noted that it wasn't until the café started expanding that there were issues.
Mr. Levesque stated that lessons have been learned and he does not foresee the café growing any bigger than it is now.
An abutter stated that she is seeing more traffic and signage, and some people are concerned keeping a residential/agricultural area a residential/agricultural area.
In response to a question from Mr. Faiman, an abutter stated that some of the commercial signs were removed over the summer but some have been put back up and another abutter stated that there is a residence with signs advertising homemade goods. A third abutter pointed out that the fact that if there is a proliferation in signs it is an enforcement issue, not an issue of the farms.
Mr. Kennedy noted that there was a farm related sign that he put up, received a complaint about, and removed but it doesn't sound like the other signs the public is complaining about are related to the farm or café.
Mr. Faiman asked the public to report inappropriate commercial signs.
In response to a question from the Mr. Hoar, Mr. Geiger stated that they are serving more than 24 people at a time but the state does not consider outside seating in their permits as one cannot control where the customers eat their food after it is taken out.
Mr. Faiman stated that he shares Mr. Hoar's concerns and as he recalls the original 14 seats granted took into account concerns about traffic and the amount of patronage; the decision was not just about measuring tables.
Mr. McDonough stated that the picnic tables could belong to the farm or the apartment renters and a stone wall could become a seat so he feels that the ordinance is only controlling the inside seating. He also stated that the variance request is for an increase of ten seats so the picnic tables are a moot point.
Mr. Hoar disagreed stating that traffic and use of the septic system have to be taken into consideration.
Mr. Faiman stated that he has eaten at the café and sat outside and his impression was that he was sitting at extra café seating not at a random picnic table that might belong to someone else.
Mr. Poisson stated that he feels the picnic tables are a seasonal item but Mr. Faiman pointed out that they would be back every season so in that way they are permanent.
Discussion ensued regarding the outside seating.
Mr. Faiman summarized the discussion thus far stating that there is an application for what amounts to an amendment to a variance asking for ten additional seats and an increase in hours of operation to include Friday, Saturday, and Sunday dinner hours, and changes to the exterior to add new doors and windows. He noted that there is a conflict as to what 24 seats includes and that the Board understands that these changes have already been implemented. He stated the concerns have included the appropriateness of a commercial activity or increasing commercial activity in a residential/agricultural area and secondary effects of the business such as traffic and lighting. He also stated that the Board has heard considerable support from the public who believe the cafe is a desirable thing and culturally enriching as well as an appropriate accessory to the farm.
A MOTION was made by Mr. Hoar and SECONDED by Mr. Poisson to close the public hearing and enter into deliberation.
Voting: 4 ayes; motion carried unanimously.
Mr. Carnduff stated that the state knows where to draw the line in terms of restrictions for patrons and it does not make sense for the Board to try to limit the picnic tables. Mr. Faiman agreed.
Mr. Hoar stated that he is concerned about the separation of hours 8 am to 5 pm and then 6 pm to 9 pm because he feels that it is easy to violate and prefers a contiguous block of time.
The Board discussed the justifications for the variance as follows:
This variance is for the enlargement of the Hilltop Café ("the Café") permitted by an earlier variance, in Wilton ZBA Case #6/8/10-1. The Board heard considerable testimony concerning the character of that existing café use and its effects on the area.
State statute and the Wilton Zoning Ordinance are broadly supportive of agriculture and related uses. (Wilton Zoning Ordinance 6.1(b), RSA21:34-a, RSA 672:1,III-b)
The Board found that the Café is located at and is intimately connected with the agricultural and educational mission of the Four Corners Farm ("the Farm"), which is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Farm products are used in the meals served at the Café. Members of the Farm enjoy meals at the Café while visiting the Farm. Patrons of the Café may become visitors to the Farm. Income from the Café supports the Farm.
The Board also determined that the proposed changes to the existing Café would have minimal effect on the character of the neighborhood and the surrounding area.
Having found that the Café is consistent with, and supportive of, the agricultural activity and character encouraged by the Ordinance, and not detrimental to the surrounding area, the Board determined that the proposed expansion is not contrary to the public interest, is consistent with the spirit of the Ordinance, and would do substantial justice.
The Board heard from many residents of the general area around the Café, including the nearest residential neighbor. Most were highly supportive of the Farm and Café; some had found the Farm and Café to be a positive factor when considering moving to the area. The Board also heard from a Realtor who testified that the Farm and Café had been strong selling points in the sale of homes in the area.
Considering this testimony, and considering the minimal extent of the proposed expansion, the Board found that the proposed expansion would not diminish surrounding property values.
A MOTION was made by Mr. Carnduff and SECONDED by Mr. Hoar to approve the application by Hilltop Cafe (applicant) and Senator Development, LLC (owner) for a variance to section 6.1 of the Wilton Zoning Ordinance has been granted. The variance will permit the continuing use of a portion of a building on Lot F-98-1, 195 Isaac Frye Highway (Four Corners Farm) as a cafe.
The cafe may have up to 24 seats. Hours of operation are to be limited to 8 am to 5 pm, Monday through Thursday, and 8 am to 9 pm, Friday through Sunday. Parking is to be as shown on the plan submitted with the variance application in ZBA Case #6/8/10-1.
The new door and window already constructed are approved. Any further exterior changes to the building must be approved by any easement holders and authorities having jurisdiction.
Voting: 5 ayes; motion carried unanimously.
A MOTION was made by Ms. Roberts and SECONDED by Mr. Hoar to adjourn the meeting.
Voting: 5 ayes; motion carried unanimously.
Chairman Faiman declared the meeting adjourned at 10:35 p.m.
Heather Loewy Nichols