Let Tabora Farms be.
That was the prevailing message many people delivered to the Hilltown Board of Supervisors at a Monday evening meeting that saw the township municipal building swell to a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 120 people at one point.
The firm majority of the crowd was there to urge the supervisors to drop their appeal of a recent township zoning hearing board decision concerning Tabora Farms, a family-run orchard on Upper Stump Road that is also home to a deli, bakery, outdoor events and more.
“You’re using taxpayer money to fight something that’s a good for our township,” said one woman.
“Please withdraw this appeal and let us continue to serve the community,” said Patricia Torrice, who owns Tabora Farms with her husband Caleb.
The dispute began last year when several Tabora Farms’ neighbors complained to the township that Tabora’s activities had grown out of control and were ruining their quality of life. Loud noises from outdoor events, intrusive music, and patrons trespassing on their private properties were among the issues raised.
Township Zoning Officer Dave Taylor went in to inspect, and ended up issuing a number of citations against Tabora Farms. The citations then became the subject of hearings before the Hilltown Zoning Hearing Board, pitting the township and zoning officer on one side against Tabora Farms on the other.
The hearings stretched on through 2018 until the zoning hearing board issued a decision in December. The decision allowed certain operations at the center of the dispute, such as the bakery, store and deli, to remain, but required the removal of a winery selling local wine and hard cider.
Restrictions were placed on live music, and the zoning hearing board decreed that a water management system be installed in an area the Torrices said will require removing healthy apple-producing trees.
Among other things, the zoning decision curtailed outdoor events, saying they can only be agricultural in nature – a fact that ruled out a number of happenings Tabora had come to commonly host, from weddings and Mothers’ Day brunches, to movie nights, an Irish festival, Halloween attractions and more.
While the ruling wasn’t ideal for Caleb and Patricia Torrice, they accepted it, believing they’d still be able to run a viable business.
But that wasn’t the end of things.
On the advice of Township Solicitor Stephen Harris, the Hilltown Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in January to appeal the zoning hearing board’s decision to the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas.
As Harris explained Monday, a key reason for the appeal is that the township feels there needs to be a clearer definition of what constitutes an agricultural event. Furthermore, what Harris characterized as traffic flow and parking issues related to the deli need to be addressed.
Harris said the hope is that such issues can be solved with the Torrices’ attorney before the matter ever has to come before a judge.
“We’re going to try to work out the issues without litigation,” said Harris, adding that if the township didn’t appeal it would not have recourse to address such matters. “This can be resolved.”
Nonetheless, news of the appeal of was devastating to the Torrices, small business owners who employ approximately 50 people at their Tabora Farms.
The 2018 zoning battle cost the parents of four (ages 8 to 12) about $50,000 on legal and related fees. They project that battling the appeal will cost them another $20,000 to $25,000.
By being willing to meet the restrictions and various requirements of the zoning hearing board decision issued in December, the Torrices feel they’re compromising and acting in good faith. Additional requirements or restrictions could hamstring the farm to the point where it wouldn’t be able to generate the revenue necessary to survive, the couple said.
“Please drop this appeal so we can go on with our lives,” said Caleb Torrice.
Many folks present spoke up to implore supervisors to do just that.
“Tabora Farms is a tremendous asset to the community,” said long-time resident Charles Lomax. “It’s terrible the financial strain you’ve put them under.”
Some speakers pointed to ways the Torrices, in their decade of running the farm, have done much for the community, from their business model that allows for relatively inexpensive family-friendly entertainment to their charitable giving and support of local organizations and causes.
“Tabora is a gift to our community,” said one woman.
Vince Vesci, a Hilltown resident and real estate agent by trade, encouraged the township to consider the potential negative consequences of crippling Tabora to the point that it closes.
Beyond ruining the Torrices and the loss of local jobs, the property could become a vacant eyesore – potentially hard to move on the real estate market. That’s not something Hilltown residents or officials would want.
“I urge you to make it right,” Vesci said.
As of press time, the appeal remained active.