Regulations Loosened On Ag Property Weddings, Special Events; Farmers Looking To Diversify Their Properties

SNOW HILL – Two changes approved by county officials this week will make it easier for owners of agriculturally zoned properties to host weddings and other special events.

The Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday approved two text amendments related to commercial special events on properties with agricultural zoning. The approvals came after modifications to both proposals in an effort to ensure they wouldn’t cause problems for local farmers.

“My main goal as a commissioner is to protect agriculture,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said. “It’s one of our main industries.”

The first text amendment, presented by attorney Mark Cropper for Darren and Catherine Casto, will allow agricultural properties, by special exception, to host events as long as they’re at least 25 acres and meet certain setback requirements. Though Cropper originally proposed a text amendment that would allow “the commercial hosting of non-agricultural functions and events” on any agricultural property at least five acres in size, he amended that to 50 acres and added a restriction that any associated live music would end by 11 p.m. in an attempt to alleviate any concerns. He said he’d submitted the text amendment so that his clients could host weddings and the like at their horse farm.

“The use of agricultural sites for celebrations such as weddings birthday parties, anniversaries and the like, has become extremely popular in the past several years. In many instances the desire is to use a barn, a truly rustic atmosphere, because of the character of the event,” Cropper said.

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The farm is hosting events now, but that is permitted as a transient use, which cannot be renewed for more than two 12-month periods.

“The purpose of the text amendment is to allow this use to continue on the property as a special exception,” Cropper said, pointing out that the way it was written property owners like the Castos would still have to ask county officials for approval before they began hosting events. “It doesn’t grant the request. That discretion is left to the board of zoning appeals.”

Cropper said that by increasing the minimum acreage and including the requirement that any event be at least 500 feet from any residential structure or public road he didn’t expect neighbors to be impacted.

“If you’re even going to request this type of use, you’re going to have to have a very large parcel of land,” he said.

Area resident Kim Nock, who operates Andrew Nock Photography with her husband, spoke in favor of the text amendment. She said she and her husband heard from couples interested in holding farm weddings on a weekly basis. The lack of large venues in the area has made tented events on farms even more appealing to couples getting married, she said.

“This is a no brainer for the Worcester County economy,” she said, adding that weddings brought people to Ocean City and area hotels. “The Eastern Shore is behind in taking advantage of this trend.”

Following the closure of the public hearing on the text amendment, Bunting said Cropper’s changes to the proposal alleviated his initial concerns with it. Commissioner Ted Elder questioned the 50-acre lot minimum.

“I’d think the setbacks would be more important,” he said, adding that he was worried that another property owner interested in hosting events wouldn’t be able to. He suggested a 25-acre lot minimum.

Bunting agreed.

“We were a little concerned somebody might be excluded,” he said.

With Cropper’s agreement to decrease the minimum lot size to 25 acres, the commissioners unanimously approved the text amendment.

The second special event-related text amendment the commissioners were presented with was written to allow wineries to host weddings, birthday parties and the like. The amendment, submitted by Barry Mariner, would allow wineries at least five acres in size to host special events as long as they met certain setback requirements. Mariner and his wife Jeannie are working with their daughter to establish Windmill Creek Vineyard and Winery on Old Worcester Highway.

Jeannie Mariner told the commissioners they had a historic farm on a 12.5-acre lot that they were turning into a vineyard and winery. She said they’d done their research and knew they needed to offer more than a tasting room on the property.

“That alone does not make a viable business,” she said. “You’ve got to have accessory uses, you’ve got to have events.”

Because of that, the text amendment submitted was written to allow wineries at least five acres in size with a lot width of at least 200 feet to host functions and events.

“Having the events is imperative,” she said.

Bunting said he was worried about the proposal because the Mariner property was surrounded by farmland. He said he envisioned issues arising if a farmer for example, was spreading manure on those fields while the winery was hosting a wedding.

“I’m really concerned about the effect it would have on farming operations,” he said.

Mariner said weddings and other events would be held on a section of the property that will eventually be surrounded by vineyard. She added that anyone having a wedding on a farm would know what they were getting into.

“That’s a risk they take,” she said. “It comes with the territory.”

Bunting said that he wouldn’t be as concerned with the proposal if the lot requirement was larger. He suggested 10 acres.

Mariner said that while increasing the minimum lot size to 10 acres would still enable her family to go forward with its plans, she didn’t want to hurt anyone else’s chances.

“There are smaller vineyards in the area…,” she said. “I don’t want to limit someone else’s business by picking a random number.”

Mariner said the area could withstand even more wineries and vineyards, as they were a tourism attraction and would be good for the economy.

“It brings so much to the area,” she said. “There are wine trail maps in every state you go to. If done properly, it can be an asset to the area.”

Commissioner Bud Church advised Mariner that Bunting was trying to negotiate so that the text amendment would have the support it needed.

“You’re pleading your case,” Church said. “Let others be concerned about theirs.”

The Mariners agreed to increase the lot requirement to 10 acres and the commissioner voted unanimously to approve the text amendment.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.