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News / Business / Clark County Business

Commercial farm events ‘quality-of-life issue’ with potential code changes drawing concern from rural residents

Currently, Clark County does not allow property owners in some zones to operate event centers without also operating a winery

By Doug Flanagan, Camas-Washougal Post-Record
Published: June 22, 2024, 6:07am
3 Photos
John Spencer talks during the &ldquo;Novel Night&rdquo; fundraising event at his Get To-Gather Farm in Camas in August 2022.
John Spencer talks during the “Novel Night” fundraising event at his Get To-Gather Farm in Camas in August 2022. (Courtesy of Amanda Goff) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — A Washougal resident fears potential Clark County code revisions could wreck the peace and quiet that drew many to rural areas.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” said Sherri Irish, who has lived in rural Washougal since 1987. “You work hard all week, go out Friday evening to sit and relax, look forward to the weekend, and the music starts. It’s very frustrating. It is unfair. I know people want to make money, but it should never be at the expense of the quality of life of everyone else around them.”

A county task force is looking at changing the rules about holding events on farms in areas zoned rural.

Irish believes small farmers should be allowed to pursue alternative revenue streams, but said she hopes the county will place restrictions on those events.

During two recent events held near Irish’s home, she said, the noise caused the most disruption. “I start feeling like a prisoner in my own home because of a neighbor’s inconsiderate behavior,” said Irish, who said she ended up staying inside and closing windows to shut out the concerts.

Clark County formed the Rural Event Center Task Force earlier this year to examine whether its existing code for commercial events in rural areas — weddings, parties, receptions and other small gatherings — was in need of an overhaul.

Task force member John Spencer, who launched Washougal’s Get To-Gather Farm at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, understands the challenges of trying to make it in Clark County as a small farmer. He said the county’s existing code relating to events on farms and rural lands is confusing and nonsensical.

“I can run my pumpkin patch all season long with hundreds of people coming and going every day, yet I can’t currently advertise the use of my land as a wedding venue on weekends,” he said. “But then I can get temporary permits to hold individual weddings, just so long as I don’t advertise? I don’t believe there is a defined limit on the number of temporary permits I can obtain, but if I hold too many, then I am considered to be an ‘event venue’ and am not allowed to host any weddings at all. Birthday parties, retreats, or other special events are even more vague.”

Currently, Clark County does not allow property owners in R-5, R-10 and R-20 zones to operate event centers without also operating a winery. Small-farm owners have advocated for additional revenue streams and to be included in the winery code that allows event centers in rural residential zones.

“We are looking to enable agritourism and a more robust event-hosting business sector in Clark County while protecting the livability of rural areas,” Spencer said. “Being careful in our recommended code revisions will help. For example, we can include noise-time restrictions, setbacks and limit the event size to fit with the size of the property.”

The task force is to be made up of three farm owners operating in the R-5, R-10 or R-20 zones; three winery owners operating in the R-5, R-10 or R-20 zones; three residents living in the R-5, R-10 or R-20 zones who are unaffiliated with farms and wineries; and three residents who participate in a formal organization or board that represents the residents or businesses of Clark County.

The actual composition of the task force differs, according to Irish, who said it is lacking the residents who are not affiliated with wineries or farms.

“If the only people on that task force own wineries, cideries and farms, and want to host the events, they’re not getting any rounded feedback,” she said. “It’s all one-sided.”

Clark County solicited applications for the Task force positions in December 2023.

April Furth, Clark County’s community development director, said the county received one application from a person not affiliated with a farm or winery. The applicant attended one meeting and did not return.

However, the Clark County Council will take public comments into consideration, Furth said. “Any person that wants to provide feedback can submit their comments, and I will present those comments to the council.”

Furth said she does not believe the task force conversations have been one-sided but could see why some people — including Irish — might believe otherwise.

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Clark County Council Chair Gary Medvigy said during an August 2023 workshop that the potential code changes are “all about equities and allowing small farms and property owners to excel out in the community, to take advantage of tourism and opportunity for small businesses.”

Medvigy added that county leaders “have to be careful of how wide we open that aperture so that we don’t turn our rural area into a commercial area.”

Furth presented the task force with four code-change options that range from “very restrictive to no changes at all.”

Previous efforts

In 2019, Clark County’s community development department oversaw a similar rural event task force to discuss code changes and collect feedback. The efforts resulted in a “50-50 tie of people for and against the code changes to the R-5, R-10 and R-20 zones,” according to the county.

Residents brought up a variety of potential issues, including “fire safety … noise, traffic, light nuisance, residents being surrounded by event centers (and) business competition.”

County officials ultimately held off on moving forward with code changes.

But recently, Furth said, there have been a lot of public requests to revisit the code changes.

“We need to suggest code and processes that are flexible, clear, and ensure the safety of guests and peace of the neighbors,” Spencer said. “It’s a pretty tall order.”

Irish also expressed concerns that the county’s code-enforcement staff does not have enough employees to accommodate the increased number of calls that code changes may cause.

Furth said this is an issue that is being discussed at the county level.

“A lot of the conversation that I bring up is ‘I can’t do that because we can’t regulate it,’” Furth said, adding that her department employs three code-enforcement officers, none of whom currently works on weekends. “One of the main things I told them from the very beginning is ‘We need to look at this, but we need to look at this with a reality lens so that they are aware of what we can and cannot regulate.’”

The task force plans to meet at 5 p.m. July 19 at the Public Safety Complex, 505 N.W. 179th St., Ridgefield. The meetings are open to the public and accessible via Microsoft Teams.

For more information, visit clark.wa.gov/community-development/rural-event-center-task-force. To provide comments for task force members to take into consideration, email commdev@clark.wa.gov.