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Agritourism hard to define and regulate
Hall commissioners consider ordinance change to manage rising new industry
LL Farms owner Michelle Gibbs keeps busy Friday afternoon inside the barn at her North Hall farm preparing it for a possible opening soon.

As agritourism becomes more popular, businesses in Hall County are taking advantage of market demand.

However, some farms and barns that offer agricultural “experiences” are larger or closer to neighbors than others and regulating them has been a challenge for county government.

Commissioners are expected to discuss changes to a proposed “agri-entertainment” ordinance at its work session Monday. The first reading of the ordinance June 27 left them unsatisfied, with more questions than answers and directions to staff members to look at issues such as minimum lot size, conservation land use and distances from residential neighbors.

Some agribusiness owners say they shouldn’t have to get a business license.

The Georgia Agritourism Association defines agritourism as a unique experience that combines traditional agriculture with tourism and includes educational, entertainment, relaxation, hospitality, shopping and dining experiences.

Jaemor Farms Manager Drew Echols is a member of the advocacy group and says it is working on a statewide consensus on what exactly it means.

“Is it wedding facilities? Is it duck hunts? Is it corn mazes?” Echols said. “What is it?”

The suggested county code would help regulate agribusinesses within agricultural residential zoning districts. Under the proposed ordinance presented in June, hosts must have a business license for events such as corn mazes, pumpkin patches, wine tastings and fundraisers, even if they’ve been zoned for agri-entertainment.

The building for the event must be at least 200 feet from any property line and parking must be 30 feet from property lines. The draft ordinance also included limiting noise and the number of attendees. The minimum lot size would be 15 acres.

Part of the impetus for this ordinance was LL Farms LLC in Clermont. David and Michelle Gibbs started an event business in their barn that included weddings, proms and fundraisers, but it was shut down after an anonymous complaint to the Hall County Marshal’s Office in March. The Gibbses didn’t have a business license or a certificate of occupancy, and the barn didn’t meet fire and sanitation codes.

Days before LL Farms was cited four times, a popular wedding and event venue on 300 acres in Lula, Walters Barn, burned down. It since has been rebuilt with the proper building permits and county safety inspections.

Walters Barn didn’t have a business license as of June 25. Owner Jim Walters said farmers have had barn gatherings in their barns for years.

Walters Barn has held events for years with little complaint. However, some neighbors spoke against the Gibbses when they applied for a commercial zoning. The county had said the property had to be zoned commercial to operate a business there. The Gibbses were denied a zoning change June 27.

The agri-entertainment ordinance wouldn’t require commercial zoning.

Talks haven’t addressed whether you-pick fruit and vegetable farms would be considered agri-entertainment.

Cool Springs Blueberry Farm and Nursery is near Gainesville off of Smith Mill Road. Owner Mark Ransbotham has a state agricultural plat license but not a county business license. He said he doesn’t need one because he sells what he grows on his 5.5 acres and he doesn’t ship anything out. He sold his nursery operation last year.

“We pay are our taxes on our profits,” Ransbotham said.

Terry Roberts, owner of Roberts Family Blueberry Farm, makes honey and blueberry syrup and salad dressing on his 7-acre farm. He sells his salad dressing in stores across the country. He said he doesn’t need a business license because he sells only what he grows.

“If they told me I had to get a license to do (the you-pick), I’d shut that down,” Roberts said. “Because I make more money off the syrup and salad dressing than I do off the you-pick.”

Jaemor Farms, a large family farm near Lula off Cornelia Highway, is in the city limits of Lula and has a business license from the city. It’s zoned commercial.

“That property out there on (Ga.) 365, we’ve chosen to not put into conservation use, we’re paying commercial rates on it,” Echols said. “It’s just a corn maze and it’s hayrides and a barn, but rather than us having to pay the penalties down the road if we decide we want to build there, we would rather not have to pay the penalties.”

LL Farms and Walters Barn are both in unincorporated Hall County, not within a city’s limits. The county’s draft ordinance would only apply to those properties outside the municipalities.

Another event venue, Montara Farm in Clermont, may also be subject to the county’s proposed new law. Calls to the owners were not returned Friday.

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