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County bill sparks debate over tourism on farms

The Baltimore Sun
Why do some Balto. Co. residents oppose a bill that proponents say would simply help farmers earn more?

Hay rides, pumpkin patches, corn mazes and petting zoos are common autumn sights at farms in Maryland. But efforts to provide legislative protections in Baltimore County for such agricultural attractions — and more — are drawing criticism from local land preservationists and setting up a countywide battle over the ways that farmers can make money.

The county bill, known as Zoning Regulations — Agriculture Tourism, has the support of many farmers seeking new ways to squeeze a profit from their land. The legislation, scheduled for a vote next week, spells out a number of agriculture-related activities that farmers would be able to host "by right."

"Farming income ebbs and flows with the times, with the weather, with the year," said Wayne McGinnis, a farmer and member of the county planning board. "So everybody is looking for a way to add value."

But others in the county fear the measure would let people pave over farmland and put environmental resources in danger.

"We think it's a terrible bill that's not good for farming," said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, which works to preserve land in the county's rural communities.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has threatened to veto the legislation, saying it conflicts with county efforts to protect rural land from commercial development.

Land preservationists say they do not oppose all proposed uses, but point to provisions that would allow non-agricultural activities such as weddings and large reunions if the property owner received a special permit from the county.

Under the legislation, farms that are 25 acres or larger could host up to a dozen "celebratory events" a year. Critics say that language is ambiguous; some note that farm weddings, in particular, have sparked fierce disputes in other communities.

"One overriding concern is that these celebratory events that [could be] allowed have nothing to do with agriculture itself," said Nedda Pray of the Sparks-Glencoe Community Planning Council.

Agritourism revenues have grown in Maryland from $1.2 million in 2002 to about $7.2 million in 2012, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, and state officials have touted such activities to help keep farms financially stable. On Tuesday, state Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance visited Montpelier Farms in Upper Marlboro, which offers hay rides and a seven-acre corn maze, to promote agriculture-related tourism.

But farm events have sparked conflicts. In Harford County, for example, several hundred residents packed a public meeting in August to oppose The Regent at Stone House, a planned wedding venue in Churchville.

Baltimore County also has seen zoning disputes involving farmers, fights that have pitted neighbor against neighbor and ended up in court. The Prigel Family Creamery in Glen Arm faced opposition from a couple who said they had no right to operate the business on agricultural land. The case went to the state's highest court, which last year ruled in favor of the Prigel family.

Councilman Todd Huff, a Lutherville Republican who represents the largely rural northern part of the county, said he sponsored the bill to help struggling farm families.

"It's 110 percent about the sustainability of the farmers," Huff said Tuesday, after a council work session in which his bill was roundly criticized by representatives from civic groups.

A County Council vote is scheduled for Oct. 20.

Huff said he's considering amendments to the measure that would limit its application to large, working farms that derive at least half their income from traditional farming, would scale back the number of allowed celebratory events from 12 to 10 and would let the county's agricultural preservation board review applications for the events. Huff said he'd consider further amendments to ensure the bill would pass.

Huff says the legislation is needed to facilitate agritourism in Baltimore County. "I think we're behind compared to other jurisdictions."

Although there are no county rules against farmers running corn mazes or offering similar attractions, spelling it out in legislation could help ensure that farmers do not face the type of legal challenges the Prigels did, McGinnis said.

Roger Elliott, who owns a 35-acre former Christmas tree farm on Falls Road in Sparks, told the County Council on Tuesday that his daughter wants to use it to lead horseback rides on trails.

"I'm here to ask you to help us to continue to use our relatively small parcel of land in a way that will allow her to be able to continue to farm it," Elliott said.

He acknowledged the concerns of opponents. "I know that these are difficult questions and a lot of people have 'what-ifs,' but there are 'what-ifs' in everything that we do."

Public water and sewer service is not allowed in the county's northern portion, a restriction designed to prevent dense development and preserve environmental resources.

Pray and other critics of the farm bill say the language is so broad that it could allow a developer to buy farmland and use it for commercial purposes. "This bill is like taking several giant steps backward," she said.

Kamenetz has expressed similar concerns.

"In its current form, the county executive has made it clear that he would veto the legislation," said Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for the county executive.

In a statement, Kamenetz said the bill "is inconsistent with protection of rural land from commercial, non-farming enterprises" and does not "actually provide an incentive to threatened farmers to continue with their farming operations."

Adding to some critics' ire is a provision that could limit public scrutiny of proposed agritourism projects.

When someone applies for a permit, a public hearing would not automatically be held under Huff's bill; generally the county Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections would decide whether to issue a permit. A hearing would only be called if someone made a request within 30 days of the application, and then an administrative law judge would decide the issue.

McGinnis said people have legitimate concerns, but he believes differences can be worked out with amendments to the bill.

"No one wants a carnival next to them," he said. "That's not the idea."

Huff lost in the primary in June. Both candidates for the district's council seat he now holds oppose the bill. They say they like the idea of helping farmers earn added income but think the bill could have unintended consequences.

"Why the rush?" said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, the Democratic candidate for the seat. She is worried about the non-agricultural activities that would be permitted if the legislation passes.

Del. Wade Kach, the Republican who defeated Huff in the primary, said, "The thing that frightens me is a developer or someone buying a piece of property and really setting it up as a commercial enterprise."

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