SNOW HILL – County officials approved legislation last week meant to allow for more agritourism throughout Worcester County.
The Worcester County Commissioners last week voted 4-2 to approve a text amendment that creates a new definition for agritourism and agricultural alcohol production, which will be permitted as a special exception use in the A-1 and A-2 agricultural districts. Commissioner Jim Bunting, one of the two votes in opposition, maintained his longstanding objections to the changes, which he believes will weaken the agricultural district.
“It just seems like lately we don’t care about our farmers and our farmland,” he said.
Commissioners and county staff have spent months discussing an agritourism text amendment, initially proposed by the county’s economic development department. Tourism and economic development officials wanted to provide farmers with more options for their properties, as the code didn’t really address uses such as farm breweries. The text amendment received a favorable recommendation from the Worcester County Planning Commission in early August.
During a public hearing on the proposal last week, several people already in the agritourism industry spoke in support of the bill. Darren Casto, owner of Castle Farm, said other counties were promoting agritourism and he didn’t understand why Worcester couldn’t. When asked how the legislation would help him, Casto said it wouldn’t, as limitations at his facility were related to the building code, but that he still thought the change was good.
“This is a stepping stone,” he said.
He added that while his farm’s focus was horses, it was hard to ignore the income available from weddings.
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza attended the hearing to encourage the county to move forward with agritourism legislation.
“It has occurred to me that other counties that have moved forward have a competitive advantage over us right now,” she said.
Carozza said she was committed to helping the county with any necessary changes at the state level. Staff said the commissioners had already agreed to seek the support of the Eastern Shore delegation in pursing two changes—adding Worcester County to the list of counties where an existing agricultural building used for agritourism is not considered a change of occupancy that requires a building permit and adding weddings to the definition of agritourism under the state land use article.
Jeannie Mariner of Windmill Creek Vineyard and Winery told the commissioners that converting the family farm into a winery had saved it.
“These activities have preserved our farm for another generation,” she said.
She said its ability to generate income allowed the family to keep it.
“There’s a lot of smaller farmers around here that are right where we were—they’re a generation away from their family farm being gone because they can’t afford to keep it…,” she said. “Every family farm that goes is another housing development or strip mall that’s going in because a family had to sell. Give us the ability to use our farms in any way we can.”
Jack Lord of Costa Ventosa Winery and Brewery said he thought the bill being considered was still too restrictive, as it limited the agritourism uses to farms of 10 acres or more when the federal size minimum was five acres. He added that the proposed setbacks were larger than they would be for crops.
“I think it’s a good bill, you just need to tweak it,” he said.
Virgil Shockley, a farmer and former commissioner, said he had no problem with weddings in the agricultural district but suggested county leaders research successful legislation in other counties before approving something in Worcester. He stressed that agriculture had for decades been one of the two major economic drivers in Worcester County.
“When we did the comprehensive plan, we wanted to keep ag as pure as we could because Worcester led the way in preserving ag land,” Shockley said.
He said that he wanted to see agritourism uses but that he didn’t want to hurt the existing agriculture operations and their economic impact.
“If you’re going to do it do it right,” he said. “Slow down and do it right. Take a look at what the other counties have done.”
Paul Carlotta of Sinepuxent Brewing Company advocated for approval of the bill, which he said would allow his facility to expand. It’s currently permitted under the winery provision of the code and is limited to 1,500 square feet of usage. If the bill was approved, he said he could expand his operation to allow a better tasting room.
Carlotta said he’d love to see operations like his throughout the county.
“I think we could become a destination for this similar, to Ashville, North Carolina where you’ve got people going there to go on tours of wineries, breweries, distilleries,” he said.
Like Lord, he said he thought what was proposed was too restrictive.
“I don’t understand why the bar is being raised there,” he said, adding that the existing setbacks required in the A-2 zone were sufficient.
He also objected to the maximum use area of 20% stated in the bill. he said a farmer should be able to use at least 50% of his or her property.
Mariner echoed that concern, pointing out that her winery used eight of its 12 acres.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom made a motion to approve the bill but to reduce the setback to 50 feet and to increase the gross lot usage to 30%. The commissioners voted 4-2 to approve the txt amendment. Commissioner Bud Church was absent while Commissioner Chip Bertino and Bunting were opposed.
Bunting stressed that the comprehensive plan called for the preservation of agricultural land. He said commercial uses should be in commercial zones.
“We have properties that are zoned business and commercial that can handle all these uses,” he said.
Following the meeting, Kevin Atticks of Grow & Fortify, the organization representing agritourism and craft alcohol production in Maryland, praised the commissioners’ decision.
“It’s a huge step forward to support farmers and provide educational and experiential opportunities to the public,” Atticks said. “If we don’t give farms every tool to generate revenue, we lose them to development. Jurisdictions around the state have been adopting similar language to encourage additional support for the agricultural community, and it’s great to see this progress in Worcester County, thanks to the efforts of the Office of Tourism & Economic Development and the county commissioners.”