GREENFIELD — Despite protests from neighbors, the Hancock Area Plan Commission gave the nod to send proposed changes to the county’s agribusiness ordinance on to county commissioners for final approval.
After nearly an hour of discussion Tuesday, the plan commission voted 5-2 in support of the changes, which generally give more freedom to farmers to expand their businesses by offering year-round events and services related to agriculture.
A handful of residents who addressed the board left the meeting disappointed, expressing concerns they weren’t given the chance to provide more input before the revised ordinance was drafted.
Board members contend they can revisit the issue if the changes create more conflict or don’t create adequate guidelines for farmers.
The debate about the 3-year-old ordinance centers on Piney Acres Farm in northwest Hancock County and its neighbors, but it applies to any farm that hosts activities on the property. For nearly four years, a few of Piney Acres’ neighbors have protested the variety of activities and events, including Easter egg hunts, haunted barns and historical re-enactments, the farm hosts throughout the year.
County officials, however, decided shortly after the county passed the agribusiness ordinance in May 2012 that it might be too restrictive for farmers. Officials asked county planner Mike Dale to work with the farming community to draft changes to the ordinance.
Dale, who presented the revised ordinance to the commission Tuesday, said he took neighbors’ concerns into consideration throughout the process. Neighbors argue their voices weren’t heard.
The proposed changes allow for a variety of events, including rodeos, turkey shoots, musical events, weddings and tractor pulls, generally with no permit from the planning department or notice to neighbors required. They also establish buffer zones for operations located 200 feet or closer to a neighboring home.
Some neighbors, however, said the buffer zone isn’t enough, while farmers say they were careful to consider the residents’ concerns.
Tom Roney of Tuttle Orchard, an apple orchard on County Road 300W, said he and his family ran into problems with the ordinance as it was first written. It was hard to follow the rules, he told commission members.
In one instance, the orchard hosted a free Easter egg hunt but had to pay about $150 in fees to get a temporary permit to have the event. The changes to the ordinance eliminate that requirement.
The family offered a free community event but lost money in fees to do so, he said.
“It didn’t really make a lot of sense,” Roney said.
Agribusiness and agritourism present an opportunity for farmers to expand their services and offerings. The current ordinance, however, doesn’t give enough freedom to farmers to do so, Roney said.
Even neighbors of one of the properties at the center of the controversy couldn’t agree on what the appropriate measures should be.
Sam Lesjak, a neighbor of Piney Acres, said the farm’s activities throughout the year are detrimental to his family’s quality of life. He cited issues with noise, increased traffic and trash left behind by visitors.
Since moving to his home on County Road 1000N in 2010, he’s fought to have stricter regulations put on the books regarding agribusiness activity.
“This has been a long, laborious request,” he said. “The farmers complained they were too restrictive. This couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said of the current ordinance.
His home is less than 200 feet from activities he said are similar to a carnival.
“By default, I’m in agribusiness,” he said.
Another Piney Acres Farm neighbor, Gary Borgmann, spoke to the commission and said he supports the proposed changes to the ordinance. He feels it’s important for farmers to be able to make better use of their land.
“I believe it’s very important the farmer has the freedom to take opportunities to better themselves and make ends meet,” he told the commission. “This is a rural community. … For farmers to have to bend over for residential development, it makes no sense.”
Bob Pringle, another Piney Acres’ neighbor, asked the commission to further study the ordinance before making any decisions to send it to the commissioners.
Pringle said he worries about the effect traffic to farms offering community events will have on the county’s roads and said the changes make the ordinance too vague.
Commission member Jeannine Gray, who along with Michael Long voted against sending the changes to the commissioners, said the debate has gotten ridiculous, noting the ordinance had been to the drawing board twice and created controversy in the community both times.
Commission member Bill Bolander, a county council member, voted in favor of revising the ordinance. He said the proposed changes promote tourism in the community.
“I just don’t see a successful business being a hindrance to a property owner,” Bolander said.
Commission member Tom Stevens, a county commissioner who voted for the changes, said the commission can always revisit the issue if it sees the changes aren’t working.
“A lot of work went into this proposal, and it shows,” he said. “Much like the first ordinance, it had to be implemented before we could figure out what was working and what was not working.”
Commission president Tom Nigh and members Byron Holden and Dan Cameron also cast votes in favor of the change.
The changes now go to the county commissioners for final approval.