As wedding season kicks into high gear, confusion remains about how a county ordinance passed last year to regulate “agri-entertainment” businesses like those that host weddings is being enforced.
Agri-entertainment includes farm weddings, receptions, public events and similar uses where fees are charged.
After receiving several complaints last year, county officials realized they had no permitting and zoning regulations in place for these kinds of businesses.
“Our code did not contemplate businesses on farms other than agriculture,” said Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz.
Agri-entertainment businesses in agricultural residential districts must now meet a series of zoning stipulations, such as setback requirements, limits on the number of attendees and hours of operation.
These types of businesses also must be issued a business license, certificate of occupancy and be approved by the Board of Commissioners.
“That’s why we had to do it on a case-by-case basis,” said Commissioner Scott Gibbs.
The new regulations affected several farms, and about nine months later, just one appears to have come out unscathed.
“The only one to go through the agri-entertainment use approval was Jim Walters for The Walters Barn in Lula,” said Hall County Planning Director Srikanth Yamala.
Walters said he hosts weddings, birthday parties and charity events at his farm, adding the new regulations had little impact on his business financially or otherwise.
“I’m glad to hear I’m abiding by the law ... people can come out there and feel real good about being at a legal place,” Walters said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, LL Farms LLC in Clermont was effectively put out of business by the new law. Owner Michelle Gibbs tried to have her property zoned for commercial use so she could host weddings at her property, but that request was denied by county officials.
But county officials and operators of the Montara Farm on Stringer Road near Clermont appear to be at odds over how the regulations are applied.
Montara is a 160-acre horse farm run by married consultants Larry Becker and Trish Stump. They provide corporate retreats, team-building exercises, leadership development, equine-assisted learning and other management consulting services.
For a short time, weddings were hosted at Montara, but that business was dropped shortly after the county passed the new regulations.
“What we decided was that really wasn’t our business anyway and we really didn’t want to do weddings,” Stump said. “But it wasn’t because of what the county did.”
Stump said she is under the impression the new regulations do not apply to the corporate retreats and other services provided at the farm.
But that assertion appears to be in dispute.
“It’s possible that were someone to complain, there might be an issue,” Lutz said.
Yamala said Montara has a business license for an equestrian center, but that corporate retreats and other businesses were not permitted.
“That’s a little trickier,” he added. “Technically, they’re not allowed to do that ...”