Oregon farmers who plan to invest in agritourism ventures are better off asking for permission than for forgiveness, according to experts.
The rules for farm stands and other activities on Oregon farmland are complex and vulnerable to complaints from neighbors, according to panelists at the recent Ag Summit in Wilsonville, Ore.
Growers shouldn’t assume that a farmstand structure won’t require permitting from the country government, for example.
“That investment is put at risk,” said Ty Wyman, a land use attorney with the Dunn Carney law firm, which organized the conference.
County governments make on-the-ground decisions about the structures and activities allowed under Oregon’s land use laws, but most aren’t punitive, he said.
Even so, farmers who pursue projects without first seeking clearance from the county could be forced to remove structures if they violate land use laws, Wyman said.
“Counties really are stuck in the middle,” he said.
The public process for opposing a project that has already been approved by the county is cumbersome and may discourage critics, he said.
Lodging a complaint with the county against an existing project, on the other hand, is anonymous and largely painless for an opponent, Wyman said.
“Most of the time, it will save you money if you come talk with us,” said Mike Brandt, Yamhill County’s planning director. “Check with the planning department before you spend any money.”
That advice is especially true today, as more farmers attempt to capitalize on agritourism and more people object to these projects, he said.
Plans that traditionally would not have inspired much controversy are increasingly coming under fire, Brandt said.
The land use rules for agritourism are murky because counties and attorneys have widely varying interpretations, he said.
“Different jurisdictions are all over the place,” Brandt said.
A recent Oregon Court of Appeals ruling has provided some guidance but also raised new questions, said Wyman.
The opinion held that birthdays and small-scale events related to agricultural education and marketing are allowable.
Corporate events, weddings and other events not tied to farm product sales, however, are prohibited, the ruling said.
Farmstand structures not directly used for selling farm goods are also banned, but growers are allowed to hold farm-to-plate dinners, the court held.
The ruling presents practical challenges for farmers: realistically, it’s difficult to hold a farm-to-plate dinner without prohibited structures like tents, Wyman said.
It would be useful for Oregon’s legislature to establish what kind of food service is allowable on farms without having them become restaurants, he said.
“How do you define that outer limit?” Wyman said.
Brandt concurred that the legislature should step in to provide more “common sense” for agritourism rules.
Problems often arise when neighbors are angered by loud music, dust and inconveniently parked cars, said Andy Duyck, chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners.
Some complaints can be prevented if farmers make sure that traffic and garbage doesn’t affect their neighbors, said Matt Lisignoli, who farms in Deschutes County.
Helping out with various tasks can also build goodwill and reduce the likelihood neighbors will take offense to agritourism activities, he said.