Worcester County Commissioners Bud Church, Diana Purnell, Ted Elder, Joe Mitrecic and Josh Nordstrom on Tuesday signed on to a draft bill that seeks to overhaul the zoning code for agritourism business opportunities.
This was a retooled version of the measure that commissioners sent back to the planning department earlier this month for some refinements.
Development, Review and Planning Deputy Director Jennifer Keener and Director of the Office of Tourism and Economic Development Melanie Pursel presented the bill to the commissioners.
This version of the bill repeals the wineries provision as a special exception use in A-1 and A-2 districts; includes a definition for “agricultural alcohol production;” repeals the definition of “agritainment facility” and changes the definition of agritourism to include the aforementioned alcohol production definition; retitles the off-street parking requirements for agritainment facilities and wineries to agritourism facilities.
At its core, the bill’s purpose is to allow farmers to pursue tourism ventures without needing special exceptions, which would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
As has been the case whenever the bill has come up recently, the chief opponent to it was Commissioner Jim Bunting, whose main concern continues to be potential negative impacts on farmers who don’t wish to indulge in any agritourism ventures.
“Ever since I’ve been here, from the Board of Zoning Appeals through the Planning Commission, (agriculture) was supposed to be pure,” Bunting said. “I think if you’re going to do anything, it should only be allowed into the A-2 as a special exception, not the A-1 … I don’t think this (bill) reflects a comprehensive plan.”
The A-2 zoning district was created in 2009 to take some of the commercial uses out of the old A-1 district, where there was a significant amount of commercial uses, Keener said.
Bunting also brought up how agritourism could affect a property owner’s right to do as he pleases on his property. He mentioned a 40-acre farm where he and his friends would occasionally shoot skeet. He asked Keener, would he still be allowed to shoot skeet on his property if a wedding or other event was happening just a few hundred feet away?
“It’s not a zoning regulation,” Keener replied. “The non-agricultural events wouldn’t be in here but the festivals would be limited.”
Church asked whether existing properties will have to comply with new regulations, especially setbacks.
While existing properties would be grandfathered in, any proposed expansions would have to comply with new regulations, Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said.
The bill appeared to win over Nordstrom, who remarked that it opens up the possibility for farmers to do more with their land and win back business that the county has been losing to Salisbury and Wicomico County.
“I don’t see this as hurting farmers at all,” Nordstrom said. “I see this as being able to help farmers by and large to use their land (in a way) that makes them the most money. Isn’t that what they all want — to get the most money per acre out of their land?”
“I think it’s a big win for our county and you’re going to see more wedding venues, which we desperately need in the southern end of the county … I think this is a very big benefit for (those farmers) and I’m very much in favor of (this bill). I will put my name on it. Absolutely.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino, who expressed sentiments similar to Bunting’s, did not appear staunchly opposed to reform. Referencing the handful of businesses that are pushing for the bill, he asked why they can’t be accommodated without changing the zoning code.
“In this process, the whole point was to include (agricultural alcohol production) as an agritourism activity,” Keener said. “As we’ve moved through, we’ve gone from less restrictive setback uses to what we have today.
Bertino said his concern is preserving the agricultural complexion of the county.
“These changes will be permanent, countywide and may have (future) ramifications,” he said. “We have no clue what could come down the pike and it could negatively impact the flavor of our county, which is agriculture. Can’t we just handle this with more precision for these particular instances (instead of changing) the entire zoning for agriculture in the county? Why can’t we do that?”
Pursel replied that the bill affords Keener’s department with a guideline to work with.
“I think (addressing only those businesses) would leave it open to interpretation and that was some of the concern,” she said.
“Our concern is that they have to keep getting special exception after special exception, which is open to interpretation (each time) and I think it leaves (DRP) vulnerable.”
Higgins added that the trend elsewhere in the state and country is that these agritourism businesses are becoming more and more popular and that if Worcester County is too strict, new business opportunities in that area will remain hard to attract.
“We’re trying to create more revenue for this county,” Higgins said. “We felt this was an opportunity. This is a growing market. That was our intent.”
Elder said that he decided to talk to farmers himself after hearing another commissioner say that every farmer they spoke to was against the bill.
“Nobody wants more restrictions on them,” Elder said. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, things were a lot different and we were pushing to protect these farms … But now, times have been changing and a lot of these farmers are struggling. They’re so regulated now, right down to what day they turn in their crop reports … We’ve hashed it out, (increased the setbacks from 35 to 100 feet), we’ve cut the percentage of land, I mean how much can you restrict stuff? Now you want to change it to A-2 only or whatever else? By doing that you’re going to eliminate a whole lot of these farmers that want to do these things. Therefore I’m for this and my name will go on that, definitely.”
Mitrecic said that not rejecting the bill altogether runs the risk of allowing another venture that would be detrimental to the county’s agricultural aesthetic.
“There’s a building boom going on and these farms could be subdivided into building lots,” he said. “We could lose farms to houses and developments. We don’t want that, either. If this gives them an option to keep their farms and not sell them off as building lots or for whatever other reason, I have to support it.”
The bill will be sent to the Planning Commission next to seek their review and recommendation, which must occur before a public hearing is scheduled.