Worcester County Mulling Agritourism Changes

Worcester County Mulling Agritourism Changes
Worcester County Tourism Director Melanie Pursel is pictured before the Worcester County Commissioners Tuesday. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Local officials continue to explore ways to allow more agritourism in Worcester County.

At a work session Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners instructed the county’s department of development review and permitting to work with economic development staff to develop agritourism regulations to be considered later this month.

“There are a ton of opportunities that don’t make it here,” said Tom Perlozzo, the county’s director of recreation and parks, tourism and economic development. “Why? Our zoning. It’s difficult to work here.”

Perlozzo and Melanie Pursel, the county’s director of tourism, told the commissioners they wanted to be sure they were aware of the array of economic development opportunities associated with agritourism. Perlozzo cited weddings that had been moved to Wicomico County instead of Worcester because of zoning issues and said he knew of a $6 million agritourism business that Worcester County had missed out on because its regulations were too stiff.

Pursel said they wanted to make changes that could serve as a starting point to bringing agritourism businesses to Worcester County.

“It’s not carte blanche, floodgates open for people to do whatever they want,” she said. “We want it to be reasonable. We want to maintain the integrity of the agricultural community we have here in Worcester County.”

When asked if they were getting the cooperation they needed to come up with draft language, Perlozzo said he couldn’t answer that, as his department and the department of development review and permitting, headed by Ed Tudor, had different marching orders.

“Our job is to generate revenues for the county,” Perlozzo said. “His job is to regulate it. Those two just don’t match up in a lot of circumstances.”

Commissioner Jim Bunting, noting the three or four properties Perlozzo has said are seeking agritourism uses, asked why staff couldn’t focus on addressing those specific situations rather than creating county-wide regulations. He added that the farmers he’d spoken to didn’t support the proposed agritourism changes.

“It’s COVID,” Perlozzo said. “All of our businesses have had to pivot. The farming community is not immune to that. Here’s an opportunity for our farmers to have added value, revenue, off their product as an accessory to their farm operation. Do I believe every farm is going to go out and have a wedding or put in a brewery? Not at all.”

Bunting said he was interested in preserving farmers’ rights.

“All I want to see is whatever you do does not affect the adjoining property owners’ rights as to farming,” he said, adding that in his time on the county’s board of zoning appeals, planning commission and now board of county commissioners he’d advocated for farmers. “The biggest thing in my whole career has been to save the farming part of Worcester County.”

Perlozzo said his department had worked with farmers during the pandemic and had seen that they needed more support. He said agritourism regulations would provide them with options.

Ed Tudor, director of development review and permitting, said he’d put together the agritourism text amendment presented at the commissioners’ last meeting based on input from Perlozzo’s department and consultant Grow & Fortify.

“Please don’t think because I wrote it I’m an advocate for it,” he said.

Tudor expressed concern about unforeseen impacts of agritourism regulations. He said if a property owner was allowed to offer camping on an agricultural property, they’d have no reason to set up a conventional campground. He said a crop farm of 20 acres could potentially be developed with what might be referred to as a farm restaurant but could actually be a McDonalds.

“That’s the kind of thing I worry about,” he said.

Commissioner Bud Church said he owned a farm and didn’t see any problem with creating allowances for agritourism.

“There’s a golden opportunity for Worcester County,” he said.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic referenced a beautiful barn in Snow Hill that couldn’t be used for weddings.

“They have to pitch a tent so they can have a wedding,” he said.

He said Tudor’s department needed to work with Perlozzo’s team to come back with a bill that satisfied the needs of the farming community and economic development.

“We just keep kicking the can down the road,” he said.

The commissioners voted 5-0 to have staff work on draft agritourism language to bring back at the next regular meeting.

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.