In the wake of Hall County’s new law controlling agricultural events, some business owners are evaluating the impact the law will have on them, for better or worse.
The Hall County Board of Commissioners recently approved a new ordinance to regulate “agri-entertainment” in agricultural residential districts. The types of events under the ordinance include farm weddings, receptions, public gatherings and other events defined by County Planning Director Srikanth Yamala.
All event venues in unincorporated Hall County that charge a fee for their use must have a business license, a certificate of occupancy and be approved by the commission, under the new law.
One venue has already applied with the county to get in compliance with the new law, Yamala said. The Walters Barn, on about 300 acres near Lula, has been a popular event venue for weddings and other gatherings for about a decade. Jim Walters said the new rules don’t really affect him, except for the paperwork. The farm is a standalone entity, he said.
Walters Barn events aren’t the primary source of the farm’s revenue, Walters said. He said he never thought a farmer ought to have to be licensed to make an income off farm operations or farm buildings.
“Obviously, the county commissioners have spoken. They’ve come up with an agritourism zoning requirement, then so be it,” he said. “That’s the law, and I’ll certainly abide by the law.”
LL Farms LLC owner Michelle Gibbs said she hasn’t decided whether she’ll apply for approval under the new law. Gibbs started an event business in her 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 county told her to apply for commercial zoning and wrote the new ordinance while the barn’s fate hung in the balance. Planning commissioners and county commissioners both denied her zoning change request.
The building for the agri-entertainment event must be at least 300 feet from property lines of different landowners and parking must be 200 feet from any property lines, which could be an issue if Gibbs were to try again. The ordinance also included limiting noise, except during a wedding ceremony, and the number of attendees.
She said she was being discriminated against as a female business owner. She said she won’t stop and will find a use for her barn.
“They’ve continued to lie to me, the county has,” Gibbs said. “I feel discriminated (against) and they’ve violated my rights. It’s just been awful trying to work with the county on this.”
Gibbs emailed Yamala in May for permission to hold a few events at her barn for free, including a wedding, a company picnic and a White County Chamber of Commerce meeting, but the planning director said no. He cited the tickets she was issued in March in his response, saying she would be violating county law. However, he said she could have private family gatherings.
Whether someone in an agricultural residential district is violating county ordinances may have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Holding an occasional Super Bowl football party may not cross the line, even if the venue is free, but events every week could. If the venue is free, someone selling services on the property could be a problem, he said. Neighbor complaints are another issue.
“You can do it for free, but what if third-party vendors that are coming in (are) making some money because of this particular location?” Yamala asked.
The setback requirements are also a problem for another company in unincorporated Hall County.
Montara Farm on Stringer Road near Clermont, a 160-acre horse farm run by married consultants Larry Becker and Trish Stump, has held corporate retreats, team-building training and equine-assisted learning for about 20 years. Stump said Montara just started offering destination weddings about a year ago after seeing other venues doing it. Over the years, the farm has been host to a handful of weddings at cost for family and friends.
“About a year or so ago, somebody said ‘It’s so beautiful there, you really need to do weddings,’” Stump said. “I thought ‘Oh, OK.’”
The Montara barn is a replica of a Pennsylvania Bank Barn that’s built into a hillside. It’s less than 300 feet from the property line of a different owner.
The corporate consultant doesn’t seem too upset about potentially giving up that part of her business. The couple plans to look at what Hall County wants before making a decision.
“If it’s too expensive for us to comply or to change roads and access and all that sort of thing, it doesn’t make sense for us to do them,” Stump said. “We’re not a wedding mill, we’re not a special events mill, that’s really not what we do. I just thought it was kind of a cool thing to do.”