Farmers dispute building permits

On The Farm


Some farmers scale back visitors as required agricultural building permits debated Fall harvest season has drawn children on school field trips to farms in Harford County for decades.

In the 1950s, the advent of milk parlors - a labor-saving method where cows come to a central place to be fed and milked - led to school groups flocking to dairy farms, recalls Gene Umbarger, who has spent most of his life as a dairy farmer.

"Farmers are sort of unique since there are fewer of us now. It tends to generate some interest," said Umbarger, who hosted school trips over the years at his Woolsey Farm in Churchville, where he now raises sheep and grows hay, straw and grains.

But a recent dispute over whether to require building permits for agricultural buildings that are visited by the public has caused Umbarger and other Harford farmers to scale back on visitors.

At issue are county building codes, which come under review every three years and are up for revision by the County Council. The council plans to adopt changes by year's end.

A task force of farmers, county officials and other agriculture leaders is reviewing a section of the code that pertains to agriculture buildings.

Historically, farm buildings used for agricultural pursuits were not required to have building permits, though electric and plumbing permits for such buildings always have been required, said Richard D. Lynch, the county inspections, licenses and permits director.

In 1999, zoning regulations were expanded to promote agricultural economic development and to allow agricultural tourism, encouraging the public to visit working farms for enjoyment, education or to take part in farm activities.

The changes allowed farmers to open small restaurants, sell retail goods, open veterinary practices, maintain commercial riding stables, host private parties and receptions and store school buses on agriculture-zoned property.

Lynch said that in light of the expanded scope of agriculture, building permits for public use should be required to ensure the health and safety of visitors to farms.

But some task force members and other farmers say the cost of bringing old barns up to modern building codes might be logistically and financially unendurable.

"This isn't a case of going and paying X amount of dollars for a permit," said Dan Magness, a Norrisville farmer and task force member.

His display of antique and modern farm equipment in old buildings is open to visitors for free tours and has been called into question by the inspections department. "It's the cost of going to get an engineering certification, and it's hard to find an engineer who can do that because most don't have expertise with agriculture, and most will tell you it's cheaper to build a new building," Magness said.

Henry Holloway, a farmer who owns an agricultural retail business and who is a member of the task force, said concerns about safety might be exaggerated.

"There has been no injuries, deaths or complaints [on farms]," he said. "To me, if what we were seeing was some sort of safety issue, then there would be these kinds of incidences occurring."

Although it is not a history of injuries that has prompted the review of the code, the county is taking a preventive measure, said a Harford County public information officer.

Task force members hope they can find a solution that satisfies the county and the farm community, said Umbarger, a task force member.

"We don't wish to endanger the public. Public health and safety is paramount for farmers," he said. "But there's got to be some way of enabling people to visit farms. People want to go inside a barn and see how the animals live."

Increased regulation could have a chilling effect on farmers' inclination to open their farms to the community, Holloway said.

"Farmers will say `Forget it' to the benefits of agritourism," Holloway said, adding that it could be a danger to the future of farming because agritourism helps keep the industry going.

The committee will meet Tuesday and again later this month to work on an issue that was first addressed when former County Executive James M. Harkins appointed the task force, which began in March.

A majority report from the task force submitted to the County Council in September recommended against requiring agricultural building permits for nonresidential buildings.

However, a minority report - written by Lynch and affirmed by Susan Kelly, county environmental health director, and Don MacLean, former fire chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company - recommended requiring permits for farm buildings that are open to the public.

"My goal and objective is not to shut down the agriculture community for school trips," Lynch said. "My goal is to recognize that public safety and health is important for all."

Lynch said there has not been sufficient communication between his department and the agricultural community, and he does not feel fully informed as to what goes on during farm visits.

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