Rural zoning task force to look at code changes, agritourism definition

Charles County Program Director Charles Rice makes a point during last Wednesday’s meeting of the Rural Planning and Zoning Task Force.

A task force established to identify regulatory hurdles facing Charles County’s agricultural businesses will be taking a hard look at potential changes to county land-use policies and regulations and developing a working definition of “agritourism” for use in the county’s zoning regulations in the coming months.

Task force chair Brianna Bowling proposed creating separate subcommittees to tackle the two subjects as a way to prioritize the long list of topics identified by task force members.

At the second meeting on July 11, Bowling asked the task force’s nine voting members to submit topics of interest that they believed the task force should consider. When the members reconvened last Wednesday, the resulting list totaled 65 individual topics.

Some of the issues raised by task force members included proposed changes to the permitting process that would make it easier for farmers to do business in Charles County, a desire for more support from the county government for agricultural business development and agritourism and a clearer understanding of the impact of the county’s development plans on farm properties.

In an effort to prioritize the topics, Christina Pompa, the acting director of the county’s planning and growth management department, suggested they identify topics that relate in some way to the county’s policies and regulations governing land use and development, such as the guidelines spelled out in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan. Bowling assigned that job to a subcommittee created specifically for the task.

Task force member Bonnie Hochman Rothell suggested that the group also develop a definition of agritourism that could be incorporated into the county’s zoning regulations, to help farmers and county staff alike identify exemptions that could be granted to farmers.

Several task force members had previously expressed frustration at what they described as unduly restrictive burdens on the ability of farmers to set up seasonal stalls to sell fruits and vegetables, make barns available for events such as weddings or conferences and other non-agricultural activities.

By codifying exemptions for agritourism activities, Rothell argued, farmers would be able to get permission for such activities much more quickly, and at less cost, than by having to meet the same strict requirements as other types of businesses.

Rothell pointed out that some agritourism activities might not merit code exemptions because they would require water and sewer connections, for example, or present fire safety concerns.

Task force member Russell Shlagel suggested that exemptions should not be determined by the size of the proposed activity, and that farmers “shouldn’t be penalized for having a successful business.”

“Without a definition, and not knowing what we’re working toward, we can’t achieve what we were tasked to do,” Shlagel said.

Task force members agreed to create a second subcommittee to develop a working definition of agritourism that it will introduce in a future meeting for review and approval by the rest of the task force. Martin Proulx, the county’s agricultural business development director, agreed to work with the second subcommittee on this task.

As at previous meetings, task force members again criticized the county’s permitting and zoning procedures as being ill-suited for farmers who, unlike most other businesses, might engage in non-agricultural commercial activities for only a few weeks or months of the year, yet had to meet the same strict criteria as year-round businesses.

Bowling said that in her opinion, that’s why the task force was beneficial to both the county government and agricultural business owners.

“The conversation is occurring,” Bowling said. “Is it perfect? Heck, no. It’s not even close to perfect. But we’re having a conversation, we’re trying to improve things, and that’s a good thing.”

“We have to take advantage of this opportunity,” Bowling said.

Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) proposed the rural planning and zoning task force as a way to identify rural land use issues that could be addressed through legislation. The task force’s charter requires it to deliver its recommendations on changes to the county’s zoning regulations by next March.

The county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan identifies agriculture, forestry and fisheries as “core targeted industries essential for job creation and the future quality of life of county residents.”

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @​PaulIndyNews