Saturday, May 25, 2024

Chelan seeks ag preservation and development balance

City Council wrestles with agricultural tourism zoning code

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CHELAN—At its regular monthly meeting on May 7, the city council workshop tackled a vexing issue: how to strike a balance that preserves Chelan’s farming sector in the face of growing development demands by allowing supplemental income options to sustain ag operations.

The workshop took the unusual step of inviting public comment from ag stakeholders regarding amendments to the Agricultural Tourism chapter (CMC 17.47) of the city zoning code.

The Ag Tourism code, established in 2014, permits farms in specified zones to introduce homestay units to supplement their income. The code was revised in 2017 to increase the number of allowable homestay units.

The community's challenge is the volatility of ag income, where the homestay revenue becomes the farm’s primary income. This contradicts the intent of the code.

To complicate matters further, the city’s small-scale ag operations are declining for a number of reasons, not least of which is the rising property values that make the sale of ag land for development increasingly attractive. Increasing labor costs, decreasing product prices, and more ag regulations are other negative forces.

Community Development Director John Ajax explained the Ag Tourism code as part of the 2024 Community Development docket. 

“It’s turning into a more complex issue than originally anticipated, which often happens with land use code,” said Ajax.

“In our zoning code we have a chapter called Ag Tourism that allows for specific zoning districts – Special Use District (SUD), Residential Multi-family (R-M), and Warehouse-Industrial (W-I) – for existing agricultural properties to supplement their income through various sources,” said Ajax. “One of those is called a homestay unit where a working farm can establish an overnight rental up to 600 square feet.”

 The SUD allows clusters of one unit per acre. The R-M allows 8.7 units per acre for single-family and up to 18 units per acre for multi-family. The code allows a maximum of 20 homestays on 10 acres. There are 302 acres of R-M zoning inside the city limits.

A recent project proposal put the Ag Tourism code in the spotlight.

An application by Bluewater Terrace (BWT) proposed 20 homestay units on 10 acres with a planned five-acre vineyard and proposed winery.

“The vineyard would supplement the winery, the winery would produce wine, and there would be 20 homestay units,” Ajax said.

The hearing examiner rejected the BWT application on two points: the amount of time required for the vineyard to come into production and - more specific to the ag tourism code requirement - the ratio of income, the homestay units would surpass the agricultural income.

In the definition of homestay unit, agriculture must be the primary source of income for that working farm.

“That, in the planning department’s opinion, creates a paradox in our code,” said Ajax. “It would be very hard for our code the way it is written now to ever function with the high intensity use.”

The consensus of ag operators who testified at the workshop or submitted written opinions supports their continued lifestyle, however the city can help make that happen.

Ajax asked what options the city wants to provide to current agricultural owners to allow them to preserve their operations.

Part of the complexity facing the council and Planning Commission is how much development is too much in the name of supplemental income and where it crosses the line between being less a farm with ag tourism and more a development with ag amenities.

Mayor Erin McCardle asked the workshop if ag preservation is a priority. If so, what solutions are available to promote that.

“This is the hard conversation we need to be having…where we clearly need some direction from council…is ag preservation a priority?” McCardle asked.

Chelan Valley Farms in Manson was mentioned as a balanced example of ag tourism with its functioning farm combined with an ag education theme and “a couple (homestay) dwellings.

Council member Bob Goedde cited Lone Point Cellars with its six-acre vineyard in Brewster as another example of well-balanced ag tourism.

“What we are trying to do is strike a balance of having infrastructure available inside our city limits and high land value where the alternative high assessed use is high density residential,” said Ajax. “How do you balance that with having ag and having supplemental income?”

Whatever the city decides, a six-page written statement submitted to the Planning Commission from Manson resident Brian Patterson, Ph.D. contained the following:

I think the stated purpose of the Agricultural Tourism code, “To enable the development of supplemental sources of on-farm income that support, promote, and sustain agricultural operations” really gets to the heart of how the Agricultural Tourism code was intended to operate and why it was passed as law.”

Mike Maltais: 360-333-8483 or michael@ward.media

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