Although the Manatee County Planning Commission has said agritourism in the county needs to be clearly defined with some suggested restrictions, commissioners on June 2 sent the proposed changes back for more review.
During the meeting Pat Tyjeski, a planner with S&ME, the firm contracted by the Planning Commission, described the purpose of suggested new regulations as protecting agricultural and agritourism activities from nuisance lawsuits and other similar lawsuits by incorporating into the Land Development Code the definition provided in state statutes.
Commissioners Vanessa Baugh and James Satcher both said one likely reason behind the proposal was last November's Sarasota Medieval Fair, which debuted in Myakka City.
Last October, Sarasota Medieval Fair President Jeremy Croteau sent a letter to the East County Observer saying he never sought any favoritism from Manatee County and that he thought the state's Right to Farm Act specified that no special permit was needed for a farm to host an agritourism event. Croteau purchased 47 acres on State Road 70 in September 2020 and named the property the Woods of Mallaranny.
However, the county had questioned whether Croteau actually was running a farm that qualified for an agritourism event. Croteau was required to apply for a special permit, which he eventually did.
The previous month, six Manatee County employees were placed on administrative leave in connection with an ongoing investigation led by Manatee County Inspector General Lori Stephens. The investigation was related to the county's Code Enforcement Division. Stephens was investigating whether code enforcement officials ignored citizens' complaints about construction that was taking place on the Woods of Mallaranny property.
Croteau always maintained the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had approved the Medieval Fair as an agritourism event. The county did not agree.
The Manatee County Planning Commission seeks to clearly define agritourism in the Land Development Code so that it requires a permitting process similar to that of other large gatherings.
“I understand that we want to try and regulate things so that it's the best it can be, but I am concerned about the over regulation and the bureaucracy that I'm seeing in this,” Baugh said.
“Some agencies might wait until there's an accident to put in a traffic light,” Tyjeski said. “We want to do this (define restrictions on agritourism) before it becomes a problem. We want to do this so that staff has the tools to address what could happen in the future.”
According to section 570.86 of the state statutes, agritourism refers to “any agricultural-related activity consistent with a bona fide farm, livestock operation, or ranch or in a working forest which allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, to view or enjoy activities, including farming, ranching, historical, cultural, civic, ceremonial, training and exhibition, or harvest-your-own activities and attractions.”
Tyjeski noted that section 570.85 states the definition “does not limit the powers and duties of a local government to address substantial offsite impacts.” He said therefore, as large events require special use permits to avoid damage to the surrounding area, the same should be required for agritourism operations.
She said several requirements would be introduced in the interest of preventing offsite impacts. Operations drawing 1,000 or more people would mark the point at which a permit was required, which she said was already the case for events such as concerts and weddings.
Applicants would need to submit a conceptual plan confirming sufficient on-site parking, the absence of off-site parking and access for emergency vehicles. A paved road would be required alongside the event.
Applicants would need to forward any assessments from the Florida Department of Transportation or the Environmental Protection Agency, in the case that either of those agencies were involved in the application.
Molestation of wildlife would be prohibited, as would the addition of further structures “intended primarily to house, shelter, transport or otherwise accommodate members of the general public,” based on the state statute.
The proposal included instructions to a hearing officer to look only at substantial off-site impacts, rather than other factors, and, unlike with regular special use permits, to use their judgment regarding the expiration dates.
The proposal would have applied a definition of agritourism to properties in two different classifications: A, General Agriculture, and A-1, Suburban Agriculture.
Tyjeski said that peer review indicated there were 11 counties in Florida with rules concerning agritourism, with only ordinances of Collier County, Lee County, and Osceola County mentioning the term.
Commissioners George Kruse, Baugh, and Misty Servia, said they were hesitant to make any amendments to the code, calling them either redundant, or stating that they were unnecessary, preferring to deal with possible future issues on an individual basis.
Kruse said complaints from the public would have already been received if such events were a problem. He also said there were other regulations that already deal with the placement of tents and buildings, which would help manage oversized crowds at such events.
"We don't need to reiterate it a second time for the zero times this has ever happened," he said.
Baugh asked what degree of consideration was given to farmers in rural areas and their views on the topic. Tyjeski said the planning commission and S&ME had not spoken with farmers, the regulations were concerned with larger operations, not smaller ones.
The only public comment came from the Kevin Hennessy, an attorney for Hunsader Farms and Mallaranny LLC. He said events at Hunsader farms, such as the U-Pick, sometimes generate more than 1,000 people, and thus Hunsader Farms would have no means to determine which days it would be in violation.
“At 999 people, you don’t have to apply,” he said. “But then they count at the door, and they see two more come in, and now you're in violation. That’s craziness.”
Tyjeski said that if 1,000 or more people unexpectedly attended an event, the property owners would then have to apply for a permit.
Commissioner James Satcher proposed a motion for a continuance that would send the item back to the planning commission for further review, which gained approval from the full board.
Satcher complemented the hard work and intentions of S&ME, but said he did not know whether the review would produce results.
He said that he made the motion because “usually, what staff does is they go back, they listen to see what the majority of the board was saying, and they go back to the drawing board and see if there's a way to incorporate those things. Moving forward in this instance, I don't know if there is or not."
Satcher said when it comes to regulating offsite impacts, the county needs some authority so others can enjoy their land and so people can drive safely down the road.
But he said the county has other rules in place to deal with those issues.
“I get frustrated if people are trying to take advantage of the system, but I'd rather deal with those cases on individual basis than make a blanket rule that ties the hands of a farmer trying to stay profitable for his family and for this nation,” Satcher said.
Carol Whitmore, who was not present for the vote, said she favored looking into whether it was a good idea to impose a limit of 1,000 people on an agritourism event, and said less regulation is generally preferable.
“I appreciate if somebody in the agricultural business is trying to keep their properties and their land and still be able to make a living off that like they did with farming,” she said. “Farmers are independent people, and less regulation and for them to be able to keep their properties and not be forced to sell for development is always the better route to take,” she said.