What happened to the agritourism bills? Two weeks later, we still don’t know for sure

Del. Edith Patterson (D-Charles), left, and Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) (Maryland General Assembly photos)

It was supposed to be a no-brainer: a pair of bills introduced by the Charles County delegation to the House of Delegates and Senate, respectively, that proposed a simple amendment to Maryland’s public safety code to add Charles County to the list of counties where property owners would be exempt from certain building code requirements for structures used for agritourism.

The list of counties where that is permitted includes neighboring St. Mary’s and Calvert, along with 14 others — over half the counties in the state, in fact. As so-called “local courtesy” bills, both pieces of legislation were expected to sail through to passage in their respective chambers without opposition. The state’s policy analysts said the bills would not cost the state or county anything, and that they would have a minimal effect on small businesses.

It seemed like a simple procedural matter of checking a few boxes and Charles County’s farmers would soon find it much easier to get building permits for converting their barns into wedding and banquet venues.

And then – chaos.

The day before the first hearing for House Bill 335, “Charles County – Public Safety – Buildings Used for Agritourism,” the bill was suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn by someone in Charles County’s delegation – no one was saying who. None of the bill’s supporters, including the Board of Charles County Commissioners and the county’s planning and growth management department which endorsed it, the members of the Rural Zoning and Planning Task Force which drafted it, or the volunteer fire and emergency medical services chiefs and the state fire marshal who had written letters in support of it, could get a clear answer from the delegation on why the bill was withdrawn.

Several people were informed – verbally, not in writing – that the concerns had to do with safety; exactly what concerns, though, were not specified.

Earlier this week, Associate County Attorney Danielle Mitchell briefed the county commissioners on what she had learned so far: not much else, and nothing in writing either.

“I do understand from Mr. [Ivan] Lanier with Greenwill [Consulting Group, the county’s lobbying firm in Annapolis] that Delegate [Debra] Davis may have an amendment that will be coming forward, but that has not been received as of yet,” Mitchell told the commissioners during a briefing on Tuesday. “So at this time, we don’t have the written concerns that were the rationale behind pulling HB 335.”

At this stage, an amendment would be pointless, as the bill has been withdrawn and cannot be reintroduced this year.

Furthermore, the withdrawal of the House bill may have killed the prospects of the companion Senate bill, which was not withdrawn along with its House companion.

Shortly after his return from a mid-session trip to Jamaica, Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) presented the Senate bill, SB 432, during a hearing of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The committee listened politely to Ellis’ statement and to the testimony of Charles County horse owner and farmer Brianna Bowling, who chaired the rural zoning task force, before Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) raised the question of the House bill’s fate.

“Just a quick question … but I don’t know if you’re aware that the House has withdrawn the bill,” Simonaire asked. “Do you know the history?”

Bowling explained that it was her understanding that Del. Edith Patterson (D-Charles) had withdrawn the bill. And just before the hearing, Bowling said, she had spoken with Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) who had expressed concerns about the potential safety issues of having up to 200 people in such a structure – as is already allowed by the state public safety code, Bowling pointed out.

“So, Senator Ellis, because you’re new – and Ms. Bowling, you may not know this – if there’s a cross file and … one body kills a bill, the other bill is kind of dead, usually,” said committee vice-chair Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who was running the hearing. “So you may need to do some … real work to see what’s possible, to make sure that this isn’t already dead on arrival.”

While it is not unusual for a bill to be introduced in only one chamber of the state legislature, legislators often cross-file a bill – that is, introduce it in both the House and Senate simultaneously, as was done with Charles County’s agritourism bills – in an effort to speed up the review process so that by the time a bill crosses from one chamber to the other for review, that other chamber has already signed off on its companion and revised it to address any lingering concerns, thus materially improving its chances of passage.

“Senator Ellis, let’s … work to make sure we can get you right answers and figure out if you need to do some superhuman work because there’s certainly precedent for this being done around the state,” Kagan said.

During Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Bill Smith, the fire and EMS coordinator for the Charles County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association, also testified in support of the bill.

“We are in support of this bill, and we intend very aggressively to go back over to the House and make sure that Debra [Davis] and Delegate Patterson are on board,” Smith said.

Smith added that the legislation was “a no brainer” for his association.

“The renovations and/or modifications to any of these structures have to follow state law,” Smith said. “So there are already many, many fire regulations that … they’re going to have to follow. We in our County worked very closely with [the] planning and growth management [department] and we will make sure that there is nothing going to happen in our County … to the negative.”

Following the Senate hearing, TLR reached out to Del. Patterson, as head of the county delegation, and her chief of staff to request specifics about the safety concerns, who (if anyone) had raised those concerns with her, and whether there was any effort to communicate the concerns about the bill to the Board of Charles County Commissioners or the Rural Planning and Zoning Task Force before the bill was withdrawn. No response has been received as of press time.

TLR will continue following this story and provide updates as they become available.

photos: Del. Edith Patterson (D-Charles), left, and Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) (Maryland General Assembly)