The fate of Tabora Farms and Orchard hinges on the Hilltown Zoning Hearing Board’s decision.
That’s what Caleb Torrice, co-owner of the Hilltown-based family-run fruit farm, told the board during an emotional Sept. 27 hearing focused on the operation’s alleged zoning violations.
The hearing drew a large crowd that packed Hilltown’s municipal building. Many residents came to support Torrice and his co-owner and wife, Patricia, with some wearing green T-shirts imprinted with phrasing like “Support Tabora Farms.”
“They value community. They value family. We love what they are doing there,” said Tim Buczek, pastor at Hilltown Baptist Church, which neighbors Tabora, in what was one of a number of positive testimonials from locals on the farm’s behalf.
Nonetheless, a concerned group of Tabora Farms’ neighbors also came to make their case that the township needs to do something to mitigate what they said are frequent, large-scale events, weddings and musical performances at the farm.
Those folks said the events are intrusive through continual loud noise and other issues, such as farm visitors’ vehicles using neighbors’ driveways to turn around.
“I’m talking about constant huge events,” said Leigh Beck. “It’s a quality of life issue.”
Following complaints from residents, Hilltown officials earlier this year issued citations against Tabora for alleged zoning violations that included expanding a parking lot, operating a deli and setting up a residential apartment above the store at the farm at 1104 Upper Stump Road without township approval.
According to testimony from the township’s zoning officer at a summer hearing, Tabora was also cited over outdoor events. The zoning officer, Dave Taylor, said events like “zombie paintball” had reached a level where they were straight entertainment instead of agricultural-related tourism – and thus not permitted under the rural residential zoning on the property.
On Sept. 27, Caleb Torrice testified that uses mentioned in citations were already existent on the property when he and his wife bought it and the business for more than $2.7 million combined. Torrice said he used a bank appraisal and the word of the former owner to determine that the uses were permitted.
“We continued the uses,” he said. “We’re not trying to hide anything.”
Torrice said he didn’t think he needed permits for things like expanding the gravel parking lot and putting up a large tent, which serves to shade fruit and as a venue for events. He said discussions with Taylor led him to believe no permit was needed for the tent. Torrice said he would have obtained such permits had he known.
To address neighbors’ concerns, Torrice proposed a plan that would include adding a second entrance to help keep farm visitors from impinging on neighbors’ driveways. Among other things, Torrice proposed to add a “rain garden” to control stormwater runoff and to only hold agricultural-related events, eliminating other events such as weddings, movie screenings, open mic nights, dueling piano nights, and more.
Events would end by 9 to 9:30 p.m., he said.
Were Tabora to not be able to hold some events and run aspects of its business like the deli, then the farm would likely have to close, Torrice said. Such elements are vital to make the 10.6-acre farm economically viable. Tabora employs more than 50 people.
“We would have to sell the property,” said Torrice, father of four school-age children. The farm is “not just part of our life, it is our life.”
If the township were to ascent to Torrice’s proposed conditions, it’s pivotal that the conditions be enforced, said concerned neighbors. “How is it going to be monitored?” asked neighbor Gerald Beck.
Beck said that he doesn’t want Tabora Farms and Orchard to go out of business; he just wants what he characterized as the intrusive activities to stop.
“We want to reduce the nuisance factor,” he said.
The zoning board adjourned without issuing a decision. The decision could come by late November or early December, officials said.