Rockingham County, Virginia • Economic Development

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Agritourism Plan Eyed by County

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October 31,2011

Harrisonburg – The Valley’s rich tradition as a bastion of agriculture could be in jeopardy if farmers can’t make a decent living off their land.

Rockingham County government officials hope an initiative now under development will ease the financial burden on farmers who often face the fact that their land would be worth more as a subdivision than a produce of crops and livestock.

County staff is developing a proposal to regulate, encourage and promote the relatively new but growing concept of agritourism, or agribusiness.

Examples include pumpkin patches, vineyards, corn mazes and roadside produce stands, many of which already exist in the county.

Many farmers seek alternative ways of increasing revenue from their operations, but often find the requirements associated with more commercial activities are too costly.

The county is seeking ways to allow them to pursue those revenue enhancers without the burdensome costs. And by organizing farmers together under one program, staff will be able to better cultivate what’s expected to be an increasingly important element of agriculture in the future.

It also would help the county better market ag destinations throughout region to tourists, a potential boon to the farmers’ and the county’s bottom line.

The Board of Supervisors voted in February to direct staff to develop an ordinance to deal with agritourism and agribusiness issues.

Staff members updated the supervisors on their progress at a work session last week. Next, staff members plan to present their proposal to stakeholders, including farmers and farm groups, as they develop the ordinance. No timeline has been established for the project.

Farm First

Billy Vaughn, director of community development for Rockingham County, calls the proposal the Farm First Enterprise Program.

A Farm First activity is a seasonal, secondary activity on an existing farm that’s open to the public or invited groups and includes recreation, education, retail sales or participation in farm activities, according to the proposal.

A pick-you-own operation, for example, could fall under those issues.

“The key there is you have to have a farm first,” Vaughn said.

To participate, a farmer must apply for the Farm First program through the Community Development Department.

If a structure is part of the operation, activities must take place in a “building of record,” Vaughn said, describing such a structure as one that’s been on the county’s record books for at least a year.

“What we don’t want to see happening is people ruining the character of the area by building buildings for retail use,” he explained.

If a farmer can meet certain requirements and neighbors don’t oppose the operation, the county will accept the farm into the program.

If neighbors raise any opposition, prospective farmers must apply for a special-use permit from the Board of Supervisors.

Year-round operations, such as the White Oak Lavender Farm off Cross Keys Road, would require a special-use permit, county staff members say.

Opportunities, Challenges

“Why agritourism?” Cari Orebaugh, the county’s tourism and economic development specialist, asked rhetorically in a presentation to the board. “Agritourism activities keep farmers on the farm.”

Connecting the sale of fresh, local products with a recreational or educational activity makes the farm an alluring destination, Orebaugh said.

“They want to eat the foods and meet the people and do the things that are unique to our area,” she said.

While the concept is simple enough, starting an agritourism venture isn’t that easy because of zoning regulations.

“Zoning is the tool that creates the county’s identity,” Deputy Zoning Administrator Diane Lepkowski said. “You might hear a lot about jumping and hoops when you talk about zoning.”

Farm buildings are exempted from state building codes, but when they are opened up to the public by, say, a commercial operation, those buildings can be subject to strict requirements.

One major hurdle is that restroom facilities are required for commercial buildings open to the public, Lepkowski said, and because the cost of building them is so high, “restroom facilities can be a deal-breaker.”

Another issue would-be agribusiness owners face is road access, she said.

Commercial entrances required by the Virginia Department of Transportation could be costly and contrast sharply with the rural country roads leading to a farm, officials say.

Lepkowski said staff members are looking at solutions.

“A lot of the building code is about interpretation,” she said. “Secondary uses that are seasonal could be viewed differently than conventional commercial buildings.”

Further, seasonal use of a building for commercial activity could allow for temporary restroom facilities, she said.

Staff also plans to work with VDOT so safety needs are met but existing entrances to farms are used when possible.

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