Agritourism bill being reconsidered for county’s 2021 legislative package

Over six months after Charles County’s agritourism bill was mysteriously withdrawn at the last minute by members of the county’s own delegation to the State House, the reasoning behind the surprise legislative prolicide may have finally come to light.

As previously reported by TLR, the day before its first committee hearing in February, House Bill 335, “Charles County – Public Safety – Buildings Used for Agritourism,” was suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn without explanation by an unknown member of the Charles County’s delegation. Normally, that move would have scuttled its Senate companion bill, but a last-minute scramble by Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) succeeded in getting the bill through all three Senate readings and ready to cross over to the House before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the General Assembly to adjourn early.

The bill proposes an amendment to the state’s public safety code that would exempt Charles County farmers from several building code requirements if they want to convert agricultural buildings to agritourism functions — events, community farming, educational tours, etc. — for up to 200 people. Ten other counties, including neighboring Prince George’s and St. Mary’s, have similar exemptions.

Charles County is already one of 16 counties in which agricultural building standards can be relaxed for activities involving up to 50 people. The county has had this exemption on the books since 2006, when that particular section of the public safety law was originally passed.

As so-called “local courtesy” bills, both the House and Senate bills would almost certainly sail through to passage in their respective chambers without opposition if reintroduced.

The ad-hoc Charles County Rural Planning and Zoning Task Force, which drafted the bill, has argued that the exemption will encourage the growth of agritourism in the county and help farmers stay in business by providing alternative sources of revenue. The House and Senate bills were endorsed by the county commissioners and the county’s planning and growth management department, the Rural Zoning and Planning Task Force, the county’s volunteer fire and emergency medical services chiefs, and even the state fire marshal.

The bill has been resubmitted to the list of 23 bills being considered by the Board of Charles County Commissioners for inclusion in its 2021 legislative packet, which it will submit to the county’s delegation.

During Tuesday’s Board of Charles County Commissioners public hearing on proposed legislation for the 2021 General Assembly session, Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), Del. Edith Patterson (D-Charles), and Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) each expressed concerns about the specifics of the proposed reintroduced bill.

Wilson noted that the proposed legislation exempted agritourism buildings from certain code requirements, such as Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant bathrooms, sprinkler systems, and elevators. Patterson said she was concerned that the proposed legislation did not address setbacks to ensure that events don’t disturb neighbors. Davis argued that the bill was written too broadly given that the county has yet to identify the range of activities that could be considered agritourism.

Brianna Bowling, chair of the Rural Zoning Task Force, responded to the delegates’ concerns by emphasizing repeatedly that the proposed bill was only intended to make it permissible for Charles County to propose the changes to the county’s zoning ordinances that would address those very issues, among others.

“I think part of the big confusion here … is that this legislation is just to allow the county to develop those regulations,” Bowling explained. “It’s just giving … permission for the county to develop … all those regulations having to do with setbacks, what defines agritourism; [they] still have to be developed in the county in order to make sure that it’s done safely.”

“Even if this law passed last year … we still couldn’t have just started doing agritourism in the county and called it that,” Bowling emphasized.

“Are you married to the fact that … we have to add Charles County to existing legislation?” Davis asked at one point. “Are you against us establishing our own?”

“I don’t think that we’re against it,” Bowling responded. “It’s just that it’s a lot easier to do it, and I think that some of that legislation should happen … at the county level, not at the state level.”

“I think it makes sense to do this very simply at the state level and then define it more stringently at the county level,” Bowling said. “So I’m not married to it, but I think it makes it a lot easier for the county.”

Unlike his House colleagues, Ellis stressed his support for reintroducing the bill next year. “I strongly believe it will help our farmers and I’m 100% in support of that,” Ellis said. His only concerns was to ensure that the taxes that farmers would have to pay on agritourism revenue would not be punitive.

“Most farming is not lucrative,” Bowling told the delegates and commissioners. “The tax bill might be more than the farm income. The best way to increase revenue is to diversify, and agritourism is one way to help bring in additional revenue.”

Bowling explained that the county has been losing an average of 7 farms a year since 2007. “We don’t get them back,” Bowling said. “No one puts up a housing development and then a few years later says, ‘Never mind, let’s tear down those houses and we’re going to put back some fields.’ Once we lose them, those farms are lost forever.”

Asked by TLR whether her concerns about the bill had been addressed in Tuesday’s public hearing and whether she would support the bill if the county commissioners forwarded it to the delegation, Davis declined to comment. Wilson and Patterson did not return requests for comment by press time.

Ellis told TLR that if the bill were to be submitted again, he would work with the rest of the delegation to address their concerns.

“I believe it is vital to collaborate with my colleagues so that we can all be on the same page,” Ellis said in an email response. “Their concerns reflect those of our community members; it would be in our best interest to reach a consensus.”

“The temporary setback caused by the ongoing pandemic has presented another opportunity for us to get it right,” Ellis said. “I want to ensure that this agritourism bill receives strong support in the House, as it did in the Senate, so that our chances of it officially becoming law are greater in 2021.”

Board of Charles County Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) told TLR that it is “difficult for me to gauge where there’s a degree of controversy” over the bill.

“My thought before Tuesday was that whatever differences existed would have been a resolved by now, because my understanding was that … those that are really advocating for this bill have done their due diligence in reaching out to the delegation. But the way it transpired on Tuesday, it appears that there’s still some open questions.”

Collins said that since the county commissioners supported the inclusion of the bill in last year’s legislative packet, he expected that they would do so again, “but I may be surprised based on [Tuesday’s] conversation.”

The agritourism bill was one of 23 bills pitched to the delegation and commissioners during the session, 11 of which are related to planning and development. The county commissioners will discuss and vote on the bills that will be sent up to the delegation during a future open session. Public comments on the proposed bills are being accepted until 5:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 25. TLR will of course be following the progress of this and other planning and development related bills in the run-up to the 2021 General Assembly session.

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