When Patricia Torrice gave up her job as a teacher in Long Island and her husband, Caleb, shuttered his farm market there in hopes they would make it as farmers, they realized their vision on a narrow, rural stretch of road in Bucks County that veered off into 10 sprawling acres.
In 2008, they began to lease the property that would become Tabora Farm & Orchard, cultivated the land that would bear peaches, cherries, apples, plums, and flowers, and developed events that they hoped would encourage families to visit and spend the day. All the while, they continued to run the farm store, bakery, and delicatessen that the property’s previous owners had created, and in 2010 they added a wine shop. Four years later, amid growing success, the Torrices spent $2.1 million to buy the farm in Hilltown Township.
For a decade, the couple said, all was well. Revenue was robust, thanks to the farm’s retail operations and its popular events, which included a strawberry festival, pumpkin picking, craft fairs, wine tastings, and farm-to-table dinners.
“We wanted to make this our life’s work," Patricia Torrice said. “We absolutely love it.”
Then neighbors complained. They said Tabora’s growing draw brought unwelcome traffic to their rural road and sometimes late-into-the night noise from hundreds of patrons who converged on their quiet corner of bucolic Upper Bucks.
That led to a zoning inspection that in turn grew into an ongoing legal battle, with strong emotions on both sides. The Torrices say the changes ordered by the town have already cost them money and forced them to cut back on most of their annual events.
These changes, though, came after a year of tension with nearby residents.
“Total lack of respect for neighborhood!” wrote Rodney Grasse, one of the four neighbors who complained to Hilltown officials in November 2017.
Gerald and Leigh Beck, whose house is 50 yards from Tabora’s property line, said traffic was heavy during weekend events, with 20 to 30 drivers using their driveway to turn around every hour and their dog barking at the cars every time.
Two months later, Hilltown’s zoning officer visited. Another two months after that, the Torrices were handed a stack of citations.
Hilltown officials said an apartment had been illegally built on the property without a required fire sprinkler system. A 4,000-square-foot deck and patio were constructed without permission, they said. Cooking equipment was installed in the deli, although it wasn’t licensed as a restaurant to clear the way for that. And officials said they had no idea the farm store sold wine without the proper permits.
In addition, township citations said, the parking lot was improperly expanded by 7,800 square feet without a provision for adequate drainage, and Tabora’s popular events, despite taking place on a farm, mostly amounted to entertainment not permitted under township zoning laws. Because the Torrices’ property is zoned rural-residential, events not directly related to agriculture are not allowed.
But, the Torrices say, Hilltown officials were aware of Tabora’s operations for years, yet cited the business only last year. It is part of their legal argument they have mounted against the town.
Documents publicly filed with Hilltown show there was a paper trail of the changes made to the business two decades ago. Among them, the farm’s previous owners, J. Roger and Jane Eatherton, were allowed to build the apartment and bakery and install cooking equipment in the deli as part of a 1999 expansion. The Eathertons and their architect, records show, had met with town officials multiple times and alerted the Bucks County Department of Health, which inspected the deli biannually.
“For 10 years we have been building the business," Patricia Torrice said. “We’ve been doing so much for the community and we never heard anything contrary to what we were doing. It’s something that’s deeply affecting the public, and there’s a lot of shock and befuddlement on everyone’s part.”
In December, the Hilltown zoning board ruled that Tabora’s store, bakery, and deli could remain as is, although its winery and nonagricultural events would be cut. The Torrices, though not pleased with the ruling, said they were willing to comply.
The couple say that the changes wiped out 15 of Tabora’s 25 annual events and that they are now allowed to host only “U-Pick” fruit events, which are constrained by season, typically running from June to October or November.
The Torrices, parents to four young children, said the loss of the events would take a dramatic impact on the business.
Then, a month after the zoning board’s December decision, the Torrices say, they were shocked again: The Hilltown Board of Supervisors appealed the zoning board’s ruling in a renewed attempt to permanently shutter the deli and all outdoor events.
Stephen B. Morris, solicitor for Hilltown, said the goal of the appeal is to find a more precise definition for an “agricultural event.” Under the current wording, he said, the Torrices could pass off a nonagricultural event as an agricultural event by changing the wording. He pointed to an example: A child’s Halloween event, called the “Zombie Paintball Wagon Ride,” was amended to “Protect Our Pumpkins,” although the objective of the game — shooting monsters with paintball guns — largely remained unchanged.
The supervisors, led by Chairman Jack McIlhinney, did not respond to requests for comment.
Patricia Torrice said she views the town’s appeal as excessively punitive. Already, she said, the constraints resulting from the zoning board’s ruling have severely undercut operations and revenue. To try to resolve the issue, she and her husband have attended several zoning board meetings, accompanied by dozens of Tabora supporters.
Her husband, Caleb, worries that the ongoing legal dispute will decimate revenue and jeopardize the employment of longtime workers. The family has already spent $50,000 in legal fees, he said, and may have to spend up to $25,000 more to fight the appeal by the town in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas.
Thousands of loyal customers have rallied to support them. An online petition that Patricia Torrice started in February has collected more than 2,500 supportive comments and nearly 8,000 digital signatures, coming in well above the petition’s initial goal of 1,000 signatures. At Tabora’s farm store, the Torrices have also collected more than a thousand signatures urging Hilltown supervisors to drop their appeal.
“The rapacious development ... has gotten out of hand, and now you’re going after working farms,” wrote a supporter, Mary Jones, on the online petition. “This is unconscionable.”
On a recent day, Tabora’s, cloaked in a perfume of warm butter and sugar, was filled wall to wall with merchandise: gourmet chocolate, local honey, and homemade cookies, cakes, and pies. There is also a coffee bar.
“They work so hard for the place,” said Ann Goodell, who worked for the Eathertons and remained on staff when the Torrices took over. “Once I met them [the Torrices] and worked with them, it was just a pleasure.”
Her eyes scanned the posters that various Tabora supporters had drawn by hand in the store. The signs were filled with colorful hearts and pleas to keep the farm as is.
“Why would our leaders not want something so good for our community?” Patricia Torrice said, adding that despite the ongoing legal spat, “so many neighbors have come to every meeting, standing up for us.”