Haunted House Amendment Threatens to Kill Agritourism Legislation

Supporters of a proposed agritourism bill have turned against the legislation after the Anne Arundel County Council approved a change that would allow large-scale Halloween attractions on rural land.

After weeks of debate, the council is poised to make a decision Monday on Bill 25-17, which would create a definition in county code for agritourism and allow it as a conditional use. The measure seeks to classify a wide range of farming-related activities under the agritourism label, such as corn mazes, pumpkin patches, and harvest festivals.

According to The Capital Gazette,

The legislation, initially opposed by the Anne Arundel County Farm Bureau and others within the farming community, was amended 10 times and had won the support of those same stakeholders, though other south county residents still had concerns that the bill doesn’t do enough to regulate potential agritourism activities.

But a last-minute tweak that adds Halloween festivals and attractions to the list of agritourism activities threatens to kill the bill altogether.

Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Crofton, offered the amendment during the council’s June 19 meeting, which was the final opportunity to make changes to the agritourism measure before it expires Wednesday.

Walker said he’s been working with the owners of Bennett’s Curse, a local haunted house operator, to try to find a location for them to open in Anne Arundel. The company ran a haunted house at Blob’s Park in Jessup until the site closed for redevelopment in 2014 and recently found a potential new site in west county.

The agritourism bill, Walker said, is “very broad and very all-encompassing, in that it allows many uses that are not actually listed within the bill to be held on a farm as long as they are an accessory use to an agricultural activity.”

Because Halloween attractions might be seen as related to agriculture, he argued, they should be included within the agritourism definition, along with restrictions protecting surrounding residents. His amendment requires Halloween attractions to be located on lots of at least 10 acres and to end operations by 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends.

Walker said the change ultimately leaves the determination of whether a haunted house is related to farming up to the county’s Office of Planning and Zoning. The owners of Bennett’s Curse, he added, would have to grow crops on the site of the haunted house in order to qualify as an agritourism activity.

“I just think this gives them an option to pursue, which is what they’ve asked me to try to do and which is why I’ve put the amendment forward,” he said.

The last-minute development sparked outrage among many who had earlier pushed for the bill’s passage.

Steuart Pittman, who owns Dodon Farm in Davidsonville and chairs the Farm Bureau’s county issues committee, called the Halloween addition a “poison pill amendment.”

“It’s really hijacking the intent of the bill,” Pittman said. “Buying a farm and planting a few crops does not mean you can start a haunted house business.”

Pittman has joined a coalition of farmers, south county residents and smart growth advocates who argue that a haunted house attraction would be too intense a use for Anne Arundel’s rural land. They’re asking council members to vote the bill down on Monday and return with a “clean” agritourism bill that strikes any references to Halloween.

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