Skagit agritourism controversy is about more than weddings in barns - Salish Current
March 28, 2024
Skagit agritourism controversy is about more than weddings in barns
Adam M. Sowards

Discussion around how to regulate event venues on agricultural land has raised questions about property rights, democratic process, agricultural economics and the future character of the Skagit County. Next up is a work session Monday for county commissioners; written comments on a moratorium are being accepted through April 4. The Saltbox Barn sits ready for an event last August. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current photo © 2023)

March 28, 2024
Skagit agritourism controversy is about more than weddings in barns
Adam M. Sowards

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County commission action falls far short of consensus on the issue of agritourism

Toward the end of Monday’s Skagit County Commissioners’ public hearing on event venues in agricultural land, a member of the public stood up to offer his perspective.

“I recognize that you commissioners have taken action boldly to pass an ordinance in the face of a very difficult land use problem in the ag lands, one that is much bigger, I believe, than weddings in barns,” said Terry Sapp of Sedro-Woolley. “But here, we’re addressing weddings in barns.”

Sapp went on to detail his objections to the commissioners’ interim ordinance and moratorium on some uses of agricultural lands issued in January. But his comment shows why the issue of agritourism and its regulation has ignited such community uproar and antagonism over the last year: it is about something more than “weddings in barns.”

It has raised questions about property rights, democratic processes, agricultural economics and the future character of Skagit County.

Discussion is still underway, as the county is accepting written comments through April 4.

Years-long study

Skagit County began studying agritourism several years ago, as detailed in a timeline on the county’s Planning and Development Services web site . 

Last spring, the county’s Agricultural Advisory Board recommended to the planning commission a set of code and policy changes. If adopted and enforced, they would curtail or eliminate many tourist-related activities in lands zoned Agricultural-Natural Resource Lands (Ag-NRL).

Event venues attracted the most attention both in support and opposition. 

In the summer, after further refinements to the recommendations, the planning commission solicited public input through a public hearing and written comments.

Afterward, county staff reported having received 1,367 comments, a large percentage of which came from an online change.org petition opposing the rule changes.

Of the remaining comments, more than two to one opposed the changes.

In a 5–2 vote last December, the planning commission recommended accepting the proposed changes, putting it at odds with public opinion. The commission sent it to the Skagit County Board of County Commissioners.

In January, the county commissioners rejected the recommendations, putting it at odds with its advisers.

Instead, the commission adopted an interim ordinance and moratorium that temporarily halts permit applications for event venues in the ag zone and allows preexisting venues with “substantial and continuous operation” a pathway to compliance.

This pathway relies on a voluntary compliance agreement (VCA) between the landowner and the county. To enter these contracts, venue owners will have to document extensively their activities to date and agree not to increase the operation’s scale. 

The hearing on March 25 focused on this latest development only — the interim ordinance and moratorium. It gave the county an opportunity to explain itself and the public an opportunity to vent or thank the commissioners.

Shaping a solution

The meeting started 15 minutes late, because of the overflow crowd. 

Will Honea from the county prosecutor’s office opened the meeting with a rationale of the county’s interim ordinance and moratorium.

“If the future of Skagit farmland is left to the interest of capital to decide how best use the land, it won’t be farmland for very long,” Honea asserted.

Typical farm work such as irrigation can have a presence beyond property lines, something farmers say they are sensitive to and feel pressured to adjust their routines as a result. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current photo © 2023)

Zoning laws and efforts to protect agricultural land, like the Farmland Legacy Program, restrict development rights to protect farming and keep land prices from skyrocketing.

“Farm soil is sacred here in the Skagit,” said Honea. “It’s a kind of intergenerational trust that requires we protect the land for productive use across generations.”

He cited the Growth Management Act and the county’s comprehensive plan as supporting this agriculture-first requirement.

The problem with the advisory board’s proposed rules restricting agritourism and event venues, from the county’s perspective, is enforcement.

Code enforcement is driven by public complaints, and “without some clear community consensus around what’s allowed and what isn’t, it’s virtually impossible as a practical matter to enforce things,” Honea said.

The moratorium and process of creating voluntary compliance agreements for existing operations were designed to create clarity and allow clear enforcement criteria outlined in the VCAs.

“We’re on the same team here,” Honea said.

“No, we’re not,” said an audience member loud enough to be heard through part of the hearing room.

Frustration with the county

During the summer meeting, a preponderance of public statements supported agritourism and event venues. This time, the tables turned. Opposition roughly doubled support.

Some of those who opposed the commissioners’ actions called it “an atrocity” and “a grave mistake.”

Garl Long, a Mount Vernon attorney, warned of consequences of the moratorium. 

“It is an attempt by staff to grab tremendous power over all existing accessory uses,” Long said.

Many who spoke cited existing county code that, they argued, the moratorium violated.

Ellen Bynum, executive director of Friends of Skagit County, cited laws and administrative decisions throughout Washington that undermine the county’s actions, and urged Skagit County to “uphold the laws that were created in the public process of land-use planning.” She told the commissioners she had 17 pages of inconsistencies and errors that she would be sending to them.

Because the commissioners opposed the recommendations of the Agriculture Advisory Board and the planning commission, Kara Rowe of the Western Washington Agriculture Association said she feared “much of the work regarding agritourism will now be conducted behind closed doors, left to the county planning department and prosecutor’s office.”

But beneath these technical and procedural concerns were more fundamental values and concerns about the viability of future agriculture.

“The county is now jeopardizing multigenerational family farm operations and decades of planning and development for noncompatible businesses, many of which who have operated for less than a decade,” said Mikala Staples Hughes. “While we may have the right to farm, we often lack the ability due to the risks associated with farm work.”

Allowing nonagricultural uses in Ag-NRL lands, according to several who spoke, increases those risks and weakens the ability of farmers to farm.

Honea’s opening remarks included a figure that hangs over virtually all discussions of agriculture in the Skagit. In the 1940s, farm acreage totaled more than 140,000 in the county; today, it is less than 88,000.

Support for the moratorium

A few venue operators spoke in support of the moratorium, which provides a path for them to comply with county codes.

Tom Shields, who co-owns Eagle Haven Winery in Sedro-Woolley, thanked the commissioners for the moratorium which he said allowed the winery to stay in business, something the original proposal would have jeopardized.

“We are actively farming, and we don’t see anything wrong with having an event or having a wedding on our property,” said Shields. “It should be totally legal. It’s totally legal for people to go out and duck hunt on farmers’ properties for months straight, shooting shotguns from the crack of dawn until the end of the day.”

Maplehurst Farm co-owner Jessie Hayton Anderson also thanked the commissioners for the moratorium and interim ordinance. She noted her plans to increase the educational content at the venue she operates.

“We see this as an opportunity to educate and advocate for farms and farmland preservation,” said Anderson.

The supporters of the event venues feel as threatened by rural economics as those in commercial agriculture.

“I think, personally, people should be able to do what they want on their land,” said Nick Cecotti of Vanderveen Farm, another venue. “The demands go up every year, so you have to come up with sometimes things outside the box to make ends meet. Big farmers are kind of against this, it seems. They got a little more revenue, and they can work on a thinner margin. When you’re small and don’t have, you know, big numbers, you need to do a little extra to make ends meet. That’s all we’re trying to do.”

Next steps

Mark Knutzen had been serving on the planning commission when agritourism came forward. After the summer hearings, he joined a multistakeholder group that formed to develop an alternative proposal. To avoid conflict of interest, he resigned from the commission. [Ed.: Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland helped convene this group. Reporter Adam M. Sowards does freelance writing for Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland. He was not involved with this group.]

“Ag tourism is way more important,” said Knutzen.

He also noted that the planning commission aims for consensus, something pointed out to him repeatedly while he served.

The commission could not get to consensus in December, and the discussion Monday demonstrated that community consensus still eludes Skagit County. 

Comments lasted more than an hour. Honea assured the audience that more steps in the process will allow public input.

“There’s lots more to come,” he said.

First up is a work session on April 1 for commissioners to discuss the process for the voluntary compliance agreements that are part of interim ordinance.

Written comments on the moratorium and interim ordinance will be accepted until April 4.

— Reported by Adam M. Sowards

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