Permit compromise centers on use of farm buildings

On The Farm


The task force studying whether agricultural buildings open to the public should be required to have building permits edged toward a compromise last week that centered on putting farm structures into categories.

Buildings with clear agriculture-only uses or limited public use would not need permits, but structures with year-round public or non-agricultural uses would be required to have a permit, according to the proposal.

The group, made up of farmers, county officials and other agriculture leaders, is working to resolve the issue before county building codes are updated Jan. 1.

At the Tuesday meeting in Bel Air, which was attended by several farmers not on the 20-member committee but who are closely following the issue, task force member Albert A.J. "Jay" Young suggested the compromise.

Young, a lawyer specializing in agricultural land use, and task force president Aimee O'Neill said they plan to divide all permitted agricultural building uses in the county zoning code into three groups for the committee to review at its second and final meeting Nov. 22.

The concept marks a change from a round of meetings in the spring, when the agricultural community opposed requiring building permits.

"We wanted to stand behind the majority report," said Harford County Farm Bureau President Candace Lohr, referring to the task force's previous recommendation against requiring permits for any buildings. "But that seems a little too optimistic at this stage of the game."

The permit question is a byproduct of 1999 zoning code changes that allowed farmers to use agricultural land for expanded purposes to promote agricultural economic development and to allow agricultural tourism - or agritourism - in which people visit farms for recreation or education.

Because some of the expanded uses increased public presence on farms, the county inspections department has raised questions about the safety of farm buildings that are not in line with commercial building codes.

"The agricultural community is arguing [that] when people go to a farm and walk in a barn, people have lower expectations of safety," Young said. "It's different than going to Wal-Mart. Regulators disagree, and there's your clash."

Farmers say they have an inherent interest in ensuring the safety of visitors. They also argue that bringing old farm dwellings up to compliance with codes that did not exist when the buildings were built could be difficult and prohibitively expensive.

The task force is trying to draw a distinction between buildings on agriculture property that have a non-agricultural purpose - such as a large restaurant or a gun range - and those open for occasional tours, agricultural product sales or equestrian competitions.

The group is considering allowing farms to host indoor events several times a year without a building permit. Occupancy and duration limits also are being considered.

"If safety is your concern, what's the difference between 10 or 150 events?" said Robert Wagner, the County Council president and a task force member.

Defining guidelines of public use for buildings that would be exempt is the most contentious aspect, task force members said, because building code enforcement will require interpreting the way the code is written.

"There's a difference between renting a barn for wedding receptions every weekend and educational tours or seasonal events like Christmas trees and pumpkins," Young said.

The outcome will have unique ramifications for the equine industry, the largest agricultural sector in the county, agricultural leaders said.

Horse shows and competitions, common at stables that provide riding lessons, are typically held every couple of months.

Show admissions sales help offset the cost of lessons, said Young, who also is a member of the Maryland Horse Council, a horse industry trade association.

While most equestrian events are outdoors, the availability of indoor facilities allow horse farms to hold events in inclement weather.

Since a couple hundred spectators might attend those shows, the buildings must be code-enforced for safety reasons, county inspections department officials have said.

Fire protection standards might present a more manageable dilemma, said Karl Houser, a fire protection engineer and former firefighter who was invited by Wagner to join the task force and who attended last week's meeting.

Some older buildings already could meet fire safety standards. Barns, for example, might have multiple, large doors that provide more exit access than an average building.

Houser said that other ways that an old barn could be brought into compliance include reducing the amount of combustible materials inside such as dry hay and straw, covering exposed electrical wiring, installing smoke and heat detectors, and employing a fire protection expert to patrol farm tours.

Limiting occupancy, frequency and duration of use could reduce risks but do not override basic fire safety standards, Houser said.

New buildings - which will be discussed at the next task force meeting - are not as much of a concern, task force members said, because most building components, such as doors and windows, come in standard sizes designed to meet building codes.

It will be a challenge to have a unified, complete recommendation ready for the County Council by the deadline, task force members said.

"I don't think we'll get it to the finish line by then," Wagner said. "I'd hate to see them rush an important issue of this nature due to the time limitation."

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