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June 30, 2022

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Clark County code keeps farmers from hosting weddings, cashing in on demand for venues

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Gather and Feast Farm owner Mark Lopez stands on his property  in La Center. Farmers seeking to use their property to host weddings are facing an uncertain future. Lopez is standing in what he calls the "Cathedral of Trees" on his farm.
Gather and Feast Farm owner Mark Lopez stands on his property in La Center. Farmers seeking to use their property to host weddings are facing an uncertain future. Lopez is standing in what he calls the "Cathedral of Trees" on his farm. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Pandemic-related rules restricting weddings have eased after two years. Couples looking to tie the knot are filling up venues, hiring caterers, booking beauty salons, and buying dresses and suits in large numbers.

A record high 2.6 million weddings will take place in the United States in 2022. Due to this glut, couples are planning weddings on weekdays, stretching the typical wedding season into October, and having to plan now for weddings in 2024.

Rural Clark County with its rolling hills and unspoiled farmland provides an ideal pastoral setting for these nuptials. But farmers seeking to cash in on this wedding boom face uncertainty due to what they say is unclear direction from the county and lack of clarity in the county code.

Mark Lopez bought his 20-acre property, Gather and Feast Farm, in La Center in 2017. Lopez wanted to grow crops to supply fresh produce for his catering business, Crave Catering, as well as host events on his large, picturesque tract. He didn’t realize that weddings would be off limits.

“We hadn’t had any weddings. We were participating in La Center Days, and our banner included weddings. Afterwards, I got a letter from the county that said I was in violation of the county code,” said Lopez.

To solve this problem, Lopez applied for an event permit. County officials told him that there were two ways that he could get a permit to host weddings — operate a winery or apply for a conditional use permit for an event center. However, a conditional use permit is revocable, creating uncertainty and a shaky foundation for growing a business.

Community forum

In July and October 2019, Clark County Community Development Director Mitch Nickolds held rural event forums to discuss nonwinery events. Lopez attended both of these sessions. According to Lopez, one person complained about noise from a neighboring property where there were unpermitted weddings. One winery owner said that he wanted exclusive rights to weddings in the county because he spent $750,000 upgrading his property for this purpose.

Another winery owner said that farms should be able to have weddings, saying she didn’t want people making wine in the county just so they could hold weddings, because that could lead to production of lower-quality wine and negatively impact the positive image winemakers have been working to create for Clark County.

In a draft report emailed to rural event forum attendees in 2020, Nickolds wrote, “The community’s recommendations developed during the community forums generally supported rural business opportunities; but were conditioned with the assurance of responsive and timely county enforcement rules; especially on weekends and evenings.”

Nickolds also noted that, despite community support for event venues, “doing so would require substantial and costly compliance resourcing and general fund support to ensure the rural character is not further compromised and to address existing nuisance violations.”

He concluded that no code amendments were necessary, but said additional public outreach is necessary to advise rural property owners how to access the permitting process to take advantage of existing agribusiness and rural home business opportunities.

This decision was disappointing to Lopez.

“Small farms are disappearing, and it’s hard to make money just selling tomatoes,” he said. “What I’m doing is to create agritourism so that people can get to know where their food grows.”

After this community forum process, it seemed that weddings wouldn’t be permitted on nonwinery land. However, that’s unclear.

According to Bill Anderson, permit technician in Clark County’s Community Development Department, you need a winery in order to host a wedding venue. However, Ted Vanegas, land use review manager at Clark County Community Development, said that if a farm owner wanted to have regular wedding events for the general public, those events would need to be associated with an already existing commercial activity such as winery, bed and breakfast, onsite agricultural market, or other commercial use on the property.

“Other commercial use” could be any other business such as a farm stand. Lopez has a farm stand.

Director of Community Development April Furth said that a farm may be able to get permits to host a wedding if they’re already doing commercial activity on site, but she said she wasn’t sure because it hasn’t come up. The use permitted on the property is dictated by how that parcel is zoned. Clark County code states which type of use is permissible in each zoning designation.

Whenever a business has a public event, a lot of things need to be considered — including Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility and proper exits.

“In most residential rural districts, I would assume it would be permitted as a winery, otherwise what they’re doing isn’t allowed,” said Furth.

Most rural districts have land zoned for residential use, farming and forestry. Some small businesses like day care, farm stands, or other limited home businesses are permitted under the code. The reason for this is a lack of infrastructure for commercial activities that would bring large groups of people, more traffic, and other problems.

“The county isn’t interested in adding events right now,” said Furth.

Lopez’s farm is in an agriculture 20 district. According to Clark County code, the purpose of the agriculture 20 district is to encourage the conservation of lands which have the growing capacity, productivity, soil composition, and surrounding land use to have long-term commercial significance for agriculture and associated resource production. Permitted commercial use under this designation is limited.

Lopez obtained permits to host wine dinners, family gatherings, and corporate events. Despite these other seemingly similar events, he was told by the county that he couldn’t hold weddings. During the pandemic, Clark County’s permit center went remote, and getting answers to questions became more complicated.

“You used to be able to go to permitting and talk to someone. Nowadays, that’s not the case. You have to apply for a permit to get an appointment. I don’t know what permit I need or how to apply. I emailed the county, and it got bounced around then I got an appointment,” said Lopez.

Cloudy code

In the absence of clarity in the county code, farmers interested in adding income by entering the very lucrative wedding business are left in a precarious position. On the other hand, bed and breakfast owners and winery owners each have their own section of the county code that clearly states they can hold weddings in rural areas and offers clear guidance on what is permissible.

Bed and breakfasts can hold weddings but only for the guests staying overnight on the property. Wineries can hold 50 large weddings per year (42 events with 500 people and eight events with 1,500 people). Clark County granted this special status to wineries in the summer of 2010 after months of meetings with local winery owners in which they convinced the county that wineries were a potentially lucrative industry.

Farmers and their advocates haven’t been able to convince the county that farms like wineries are an important industry in Clark County. It has long been known that Clark County boasts excellent farmland with rich soil and a long growing season. Despite empty shelves in the grocery stores during the pandemic which created a renewed interest in locally grown produce, eggs, and meat, farmers say the county still doesn’t act as if local agriculture is an important business that should be supported.

“County officials talk about the importance of small business, but they make it so confusing and expensive to do business here. Then why not go somewhere else like Oregon?” said Ann Foster, founder and director of the Salmon Creek Farmers market.

Local farmers could regroup and try to present their case to the county. Like wineries, they could lobby for a separate code section that clearly outlines commercial uses of the land including events like weddings.

Housing developers have been successful in getting the county to change zoning designations to allow for housing developments in areas that formerly allowed for limited agricultural use. Farmers could, like housing developers, try to get the zoning designations changed to allow for more ecotourism and events on rural and agricultural land.

“It goes back to who is sitting on the county council and who put them there,” said Foster. “The constituency for many of the councilors are Realtors and developers. They have attorneys that specialize in land use, and this is who they’re listening to. For changes to be made, these issues have to bubble up. Most ordinances and laws come from an issue that arises and someone brings to the table how to solve it.”

Organizing and getting items favorable to farmers on the Clark County Council agenda anytime soon seems unlikely. This type of lobbying will take time and resources. As a result, farmers won’t be able to benefit from the post-pandemic wedding boom.

Mark Lopez has moved on for now. “In the meantime, we’re trying to figure out next steps. We’re coming to the conclusion that we’re going to focus on the farm for company picnics, corporate outings, and family reunions, and not pursue weddings.”

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