Hilltop Cafe gets approval for expanded hours, seating

Group of residents had voiced concern that cafe wasn’t abiding conditions; other neighbors have said it’s vital part of neighborhood

WILTON — Hilltop Cafe in Wilton received Zoning Board approval last Tuesday to expand its seating and hours of operation, despite past complaints from some neighbors who say the cafe has grown too large for the area.

Concerns were raised by a minority of neighbors during an Oct. 10 Select Board meeting, who said the cafe was operating outside the bounds of its original approval. That agreement specified seating at the cafe was limited to 14 seats, and the hours of operation were set at 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

According to a letter to Lincoln Geiger, one of three co-owners of the Hilltop Cafe, from Building Inspector John Shepardson dated Aug. 20, the cafe was in violation of three of the requirements that were part of the original site plan approval. The cafe’s hours of operation were beyond what was approved, the cafe seating may exceed the proposed limit — especially if outdoor seating was included in the count — and the cafe had modified the exterior of the building to change a garage opening to a standard door and added a window. The original site plan approval had specified that there would be no exterior changes to the building.

An application for a variance submitted to the Zoning Board by Senator Development of Nashua on behalf of Geiger sought to expand cafe seating from 14 to 24 seats, and to expand hours of operation from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday with a 6 to 9 p.m. dinner window on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“The ordinance grants agricultural use, and gives agricultural business unspecified rights. I believe the spirit of the ordinance gives farming a lot of freedom so that farming has the chance to be economically viable,” the application reads. “The neighborhood and town would benefit. The cultural and economic life of the farmstead, and the usefulness of it to the neighborhood is substantially improved by the service of the cafe.”

The application further argued that the cafe could be viewed as an intrinsic farm-related business.

In an interview Wednesday, ZBA Chair Neil Faiman noted that the board ultimately agreed that the cafe was strongly related to the agricultural area, and helped to perpetuate the agricultural character of the rural-agricultural zone. The board also heard testimony from some neighbors of the cafe who had moved to the area recently who had found the cafe to be a draw, and a local real estate agent who told the board that the cafe was used as a point of attraction when showing properties in the area.

In an interview Wednesday, Geiger said that the move was not without opposition from some of the residents who share Abbott Hill with the cafe, but overwhelmingly the abutters and neighbors expressed support. While he did give credence to some of the objections raised, including traffic concerns, he did not think that Abbott Hill was in danger of becoming a commercial center due to the cafe. One issue which had pushed the traffic problem to the forefront were weekend outdoor concerts held at the cafe. Those would not be continuing next year, said Geiger. The concerts led to a too-large influx of people coming to the cafe, and the cafe could not adequately handle either the parking or food demands they were bringing.

Geiger said the cafe is really an extension of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, in his opinion. Farming is increasingly becoming a business that requires additional income to make it viable he said. He compared the cafe to other ventures which might be connected to a local farm, such as producing cheese or ice cream or a boutique that sells wool products or a farmstand.

“In other words, taking things you produce on your farm and making something out of it. The difference isn’t that big,” said Geiger. “It’s more expensive to set up a cheese shop than a kitchen.” He added that the cafe was a big boost to business in a time when farming is not a profitable venture. “The cafe is by far the most efficient way to get customers to the farm. The cafe brings a steady stream of new people who are curious about what we do,” he said.

In addition, Geiger felt that the cafe was a community asset. “Now that we’ve had the cafe for three years, I notice there’s a community that grows around the farm, which is really important. It becomes a hub for cultural exchange,” he said.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.

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