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Ag rules may get another look

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HANCOCK COUNTY — At the top of the page, Hancock County’s nearly 2-year-old agribusiness ordinance foreshadows conflict between farmers trying to expand their revenue streams and neighbors across the fence.

Adopted in May 2012, the ordinance is intended to “promote agribusiness in Hancock County while preserving the quality and character of the county’s neighboring land uses,” the ordinance reads.

“We expected this ordinance to be an enabling ordinance,” said Hancock County Commissioner Tom Stevens. “More than anything else, it was to promote farmers to use their land to make a profit in any way related to the farming industry.”

What is and is not related to the industry, however, depends in part on who is asked. And now, commissioners may reconsider the rules they went to such pains to approve two years ago.

The farm that was at the heart of the debate then is again the focus of neighbors’ complaints.

Sam Lesjak, who in 2010 purchased a 1926 farmhouse across the fence from Piney Acres Farm in northwest Hancock County east of Fortville, said the farm’s activities – which range from Halloween attractions to Easter egg hunts – have more to do with a mainline commercial enterprise than anything agricultural.

“What they’re doing out there is disguising commercial activities as agribusiness,” Lesjak said.

Lesjak maintains the events and attractions next door are not suited to county farmland and its infrastructure and roads, with adverse impacts to the area’s traffic and quality of life.

“It’s gotten so I can’t enjoy my Octobers outside,” Lesjak said.

Contention has reached the point there that some are wondering whether the ordinance is promoting agribusiness or fomenting discord, and commissioners last week asked county planner Mike Dale to look into the matter.

“I have been instructed to determine whether it’s possible to make (the ordinance) more flexible for farmers to hold special events (on their land),” Dale said.

Currently, activities consistent with normal farm operations such as selling farm-grown products and small-scale, outdoor agriculturally themed activities such as tours, horseback riding and exhibits are allowed by right with some restrictions.

More intense uses require approval and a temporary permit from the county planning office or board of zoning appeals, and long-term, large-scale activities designed to appeal to the general public require notification to adjoining land owners and BZA review and approval.

Sending certified letters to neighboring landowners and obtaining a $150 temporary permit for each activity they plan, however, is more burdensome than enabling, some farmers say.

Tuttle Orchard’s Tom Roney, who is a member of the Hancock County Council, said he feels the ordinance is being interpreted too narrowly, resulting in many proposals being disallowed. He suggested staging a high-impact activity with mandated notice requirements and permitting fees has the unintended consequence of actually chilling farmers’ efforts to expand farm revenues.

“We (farmers) don’t visualize it being interpreted as we thought,” Roney told commissioners last week.

As a result, a consortium of area farmers will begin considering revisions to the ordinance for Dale’s review; however, Lesjak said more broad-based input is needed.

 “We’re open to working it out, but I don’t think anyone wants to hear what we have to say,” he said.

Rewriting the ordinance will fall short, Lesjak said, absent inclusion of all voices on the issue throughout the county to define just what is and what is not agribusiness.

That definition, those at the center of the issue say, will be the most difficult issue to pin down.

“Take an Easter egg hunt,” Stevens said. “Farms have chickens, and chickens lay eggs. That is a related deal.”

  However, “…Some would argue that looking for Easter eggs has nothing to do with agriculture,” Dale told commissioners last week. “I hear that.”

Roney acknowledges that drawing the line on where agriculture stops and pure commercial enterprise begins will be tricky.

“It’s a question of what’s within reason as to what you can and can’t do and what you do to rein it in,” Roney said. “I’m not sure how we get there.”

Definitions and semantics aside, one thing is clear: The ordinance hasn’t been used that much in its 23-month life.

“It’s been underutilized,” Dale said. “Only one or two farmers have come forward to use it. It’s interesting and somewhat difficult to interpret whether it’s unnecessary or too restrictive. It’s not clear what farmers and the community think about it.”

Whatever is decided and however the ordinance might be changed in the future, those involved acknowledge it will be difficult to balance and bridge the ever-present competing interests involved. “There are residents who feel they have little to gain from (the ordinance),” Dale said. “And then there are some farmers who hope to make the most of it.’

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