To the casual observer, agricultural zoning may appear to be a straightforward classification. The mind conjures images of fields teeming with grazing cattle, horse farms, and tractors slowly ambling along two-lane roads. However, the reality is far more complex when it comes to the realm of government regulations. Rural dwellers living amid agricultural zoning are often surprised to discover the wide range of activities permitted under these designations. The notion of “agritourism” allows landowners to utilize their agricultural land for purposes beyond traditional farming or grazing. This revelation can sometimes leave local governments powerless to intervene.
The Battle Over Agricultural Designation
In 2021, a contentious dispute over agricultural zoning reached its climax with the case of Ranhy Yoho’s land near I-75. Yoho sought permission to allow motorcycles on his property, but neighboring landowners successfully opposed his plans through multiple visits to the county commission chambers.
At a County Commission meeting on November 16, the Matthews Family Limited Partnership faced strong community opposition as they requested a special use exception for their 120-acre lot, known as Farm of Dreams. Despite the residents of the neighboring development vehemently objecting to the proposed land use, the commission ultimately approved the special exception in a unanimous 5-0 vote.
Commissioner Steve Champion acknowledged that, in many instances, the commission’s hands are tied in land use cases due to state laws that prioritize the rights of property owners. While agriculture is permitted, certain activities such as the establishment of shooting ranges cannot be easily prevented. Champion pointed out that the real intrusion in such cases often stems from developments like Camper’s Holiday, which he believes should not have been allowed in an agricultural area.
Exploring the World of Agritourism
Assistant County Attorney Kyle Benda delivered a comprehensive lecture on agritourism during a County Commission meeting on December 14. He highlighted that the primary purpose of the state’s laws is to support genuine agricultural production and provide farms with a supplemental source of income. Additionally, these laws aim to educate the public about agriculture.
Notably, bills have been introduced in the House (HB 717) and Senate (SB 1186) concerning agritourism. These bills propose removing the term “secondary” and expanding the scope to include tourism as a source of revenue. Currently, these bills are under review by committees and are subject to potential changes before enactment.
Commissioner Champion expressed concern regarding the regulation of wedding venues, which have become a significant business for farms. He questioned whether it is necessary to impose regulations on these venues, as long as they adhere to the existing laws. Benda responded that the commission has the authority to regulate certain aspects of these venues through the Special Exception Use permit process. However, Champion disagreed, arguing that such regulations would encroach upon the private property rights of landowners. He stated that as long as the venues meet the legal definition of agritourism, the commission should not impede their activities.
Balancing Local Control and Impacts
County Administrator Jeff Rogers emphasized the phrase “off-site impact” as a key consideration in evaluating land use requests. In instances where wedding venues or similar businesses could potentially affect surrounding neighborhoods, the impacts are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Rogers suggested that if an event takes place only once a year, it may not require the special exception process. However, when such events become regular business operations, they are subject to the review process, allowing citizens to voice concerns about potential impacts.
During the contentious Farm of Dreams case, residents of Camper’s Holiday expressed worries about noise, traffic, accidents, invasions of privacy, drainage issues, excessive firearm usage, and even the conversion of the land into a pig farm. Commissioner Champion consistently advocated for property rights, asserting that landowners should be allowed to use their properties as long as they adhere to the law. He criticized the burdensome special exception process and its potential impact on property owners who wish to hold events or conduct activities on their land.
Ron Pianta, the director of planning and zoning services, acknowledged that some farms may transition from farming activities to solely operating as wedding venues. He stressed that determining the policy regarding such transitions is a decision for the board. Pianta suggested that it may be prudent to await the upcoming legislative session to see if any new laws or rulings clarify these matters.
The Complexities of Land Use
The presentation on agricultural zoning and agritourism served as an educational exercise, requiring no immediate decision. County staff members have been collaborating to establish procedures for determining whether an agricultural area qualifies as a bona fide farm.
Commissioner Champion posed hypothetical scenarios involving farmers who wish to utilize their land for various purposes. The County Administrator assured him that in most cases, farmers will not require special permission to engage in activities that utilize existing buildings on their properties. However, when it comes to potential lawsuits against the county, Assistant County Attorney Benda reminded the commission that anyone can file a lawsuit, but it does not guarantee the validity of the claim.
As the debate continues, the outcome of pending legal cases and potential legislative changes may further shape the intricate landscape of agricultural zoning and its accompanying regulations. The delicate balance between property rights, local control, and the impacts of agritourism activities remains an ongoing challenge for government officials and citizens alike.