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Bucks County farmer wins supervisor seat, will serve with those who tried to upend his business

Caleb Torrice, owner of Tabora Farm & Orchard in Hilltown Township, says he's "going to make sure no other business has to go through" what he did.

Patricia and Caleb Torrice at Tabora Farm & Orchard's store. Caleb Torrice has been elected to the Hilltown Township three-person Board of Supervisors.
Patricia and Caleb Torrice at Tabora Farm & Orchard's store. Caleb Torrice has been elected to the Hilltown Township three-person Board of Supervisors.Read moreWilliam Thomas Cain / CAIN IMAGES

A Bucks County farmer won a seat Tuesday on a local government board that had sought to close much of his farm’s operations in a yearlong zoning dispute.

Caleb Torrice, owner of Tabora Farm & Orchard, defeated Democrat Steve Kendra by 61% to 39% for the open seat on the Hilltown Township Board of Supervisors, according to unofficial results.

Torrice, a Republican, netted 2,734 votes in a township with a little more than 15,500 residents. Kendra, a tour bus driver and political newcomer who has served as president of the Hilltown Civic Association, collected 1,739 votes, unofficial results show.

“I feel great,” Torrice said Wednesday morning. “I want to hit the ground running in January. I want everyone to know I’m a team player, and that I’m coming for the right reasons.”

Torrice, 44, will replace Ken Bennington to serve a six-year term on the three-person board. He will serve alongside Chair Jack McIlhinney and Vice Chair Jim Groff in governing a largely rural, 27-square-mile township 40 miles from Philadelphia.

“There’s a lot of unnecessary red tape in Hilltown that’s frustrating to residents,” Torrice said. “There’s a lot to reform.”

Torrice’s own experience — and subsequent call for change — shaped his platform, which included preserving farmland and improving transparency and communication among Hilltown’s elected officials.

In March 2018, after a handful of neighbors complained that Tabora’s events brought excessive noise and crowds into the neighborhood, Hilltown’s zoning officer cited Torrice for running his farm’s long-standing delicatessen and wine shop without permits, unlawfully building an apartment without a fire sprinkler, and hosting “agricultural entertainment” events that the town said were barely related to farming.

The zoning board ruled the following December that while Tabora’s popular farm store, bakery, and deli could stay, the Torrices had to close Tabora’s wine shop and cut 15 of 25 annual events, a major blow to a business that had largely built its following from its lively events.

The next month, Hilltown’s Board of Supervisors, led by McIlhinney, a longtime local who owned an architecture firm in Phoenix, appealed the zoning board’s decision and pushed to shut down the deli and all of Tabora’s events.

Since then, a bevy of Tabora’s loyal patrons have fiercely opposed the supervisors’ appeal, calling it an attempt to exact heavy-handed repercussions on a family farm that had complied with zoning rules. Torrice said the supervisors had often been unresponsive to requests for conversation.

“The first communication from the township should not be a citation,” he said.

Unlike some other towns, Hilltown does not have a formal agricultural entertainment ordinance, said its solicitor, Stephen B. Harris, and instead refers to a property’s zoning to determine what is and isn’t permitted.

Tabora, in the same neighborhood as homes and a Baptist church, is zoned rural-residential.

Harris said that there have no been plans to introduce an agritainment ordinance in Hilltown and that officials would determine what is permissible case-by-case.

In Tabora’s case, the Torrices’ lawyer, Robert W. Gundlach Jr., has been working to compromise with Harris to bring the dispute to a close, Torrice said. The terms of the pending negotiation have not been disclosed.

“It’s still not going at a pace I’d appreciate,” Torrice said. “I’m going to make sure no other business has to go through this.”

Torrice will be sworn into office in January. He will recuse himself from any matters regarding Tabora.