Agri-Tourism Regulatory Challenges Debated at 2015 MACo Winter Conference

A mix of agriculture, state, and county speakers discussed the health and environmental regulatory challenges posed by agri-tourism businesses on December 10 at the 2015 MACo December Winter Conference. The title of the session was “Old MacDonald Had a Farm (and a Winery…and a Creamery…and a Gift Shop) – Regulating Agro-Tourism Businesses.”

Panelists (from left to right) Joanna Kille, Kevin Barnaba, Lisa Staley, and Kevin Atticks listen as Senator Mac Middleton (podium) introduces the topic

Kevin Atticks, the Founder and CEO of Grow and Fortify and the Executive Director of the Maryland Wineries Association discussed some of the challenges agri-tourism businesses face in complying with public safety, environmental, and health regulations. He noted that many land use regulations are based on a single type of use, while many agri-tourism businesses revolve around multiple and innovative uses. He also stressed that regulatory flexibility is important to resolve issues. Atticks stated that sprinkler requirements and stormwater management were two other recurring concerns.

Lisa Staley, the Chief of the Center for Facility and Process Review in the Office of Food Protection at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene provided an overview of some of the State’s regulatory requirements. She noted that agri-tourism activities can be subject to both state and local regulations. Common challenges for agri-tourism businesses involve permitting, zoning, water and sewer, and health regulations. Staley also noted that agri-tourism businesses often need to interact with a large number of state and local agencies.

A full room for MACo’s agri-tourism panel

Harford County Director of Environmental Health Kevin Barnaba outlined county responsibilities and discussed food and water quality safety and on-site sewage waste disposal.  He noted several common pitfalls for agri-tourism businesses, including: (1) building permit exemptions; (2) misunderstanding of food regulations; (3) food safety when facility is not regulated; (4) undersized sewage waste disposal systems; (4) the cost and effectiveness of nitrogen reducing septic systems; and (5) the  interaction between farm animals and food service.

Maryland Department of Agriculture Government Relations Director Joanna Kille outlined the work of the Governor’s Intergovernmental Commission on Agriculture (GICA) with respect to agri-tourism. In 2014, GICA identified issues related to agri-tourism and created a set of agri-tourism definitions and recommendations for counties. Among GICA’s recommendations is the establishment of a county agri-tourism ombudsman and better linkages between agri-tourism and county tourism boards. Kille also noted GICA created a model checklist for people wanting to get into agri-tourism.

Senate Finance Committee Chair ThomasMcLain “Mac” Middleton moderated the panel.