2021 | Government

Council committee supports proposal to help agritourism

Businesses would be exempt from plat fee before building permit

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A Montgomery County Council committee supports a proposed change to help agritourism and farm breweries, vineyards, orchards and other similar businesses.

The amendment would allow businesses to avoid paying a $2,000 plat recording fee before they get a building permit. The exemption would apply to many agricultural-zoned areas of the county.

The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee voted on Wednesday to support the measure, sending it to the full council for its consideration.

Council Member Hans Riemer, chair of the PHED committee, and other county officials said the amendment could save businesses thousands of dollars, depending on what is needed.

Livhu Ndou, a legislative attorney with the PHED committee, said prospective businesses in agritourism and related areas have to hire land surveyors, civil engineers, and multiple other land-use experts before they can open.

“You have to hire a lot of experts to get through this process, and it can take a very long time,” Ndou said.

Committee members were mostly supportive of the amendment, which County Executive Marc Elrich’s office proposed.

Throughout Wednesday’s committee meeting, Council Member Andrew Friedson expressed concerns that agencies connected to the amendment — the county’s Department of Permitting Services, the Planning Department and the Office of Agricultural Services — were not sure how the change would affect their role in the overall permitting and platting process.

As a condition attached to the amendment, those offices and the county executive’s office have to draft a memo providing those details, before the entire council deliberates and votes on the amendment. 

In an interview Thursday, Friedson said businesses often view county government as one entity, and not several agencies or divisions. Government officials have to coordinate to assist businesses during the planning and permitting process.

“It was clear during the discussion that the various departments and the planning department weren’t fully reading off the same song sheet, so to speak,” Friedson said. “And sometimes, we work in silos in government, and it’s our goal as council members to break those silos down.”

During the meeting, Friedson also said the current cap on the indoor occupancy limit for buildings exempt from the plat recordation might be too low. Currently, it is 100 people. 

He said in an interview that no matter the indoor capacity cap — or if it’s eliminated — county officials must do what they can to help agritourism and related businesses start up in the county’s agricultural reserve and beyond.

Riemer said during Wednesday’s meeting that the amendment would also exempt businesses from having to pay other costs, like potential land dedication.

Friedson said a business in his district, Windridge Vineyards, had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to dedicate a right-of-way and for improvements for part of a future bike lane.

That money could have been used to improve the business or invest in the community in other ways, Friedson said. 

“In order for the agricultural reserve to be protected and preserved, it can’t just be environmentally sustainable. It has to be economically sustainable because farmers rely on their farms to live, and to feed their families,” Friedson said.

Council Member Will Jawando said during the meeting that he wanted to ensure there were other checks and regulations for the planning staff and other county officials before the committee supported the amendment.

Mike Scheffel, an agricultural land preservation program administrator in the county’s Office of Agricultural Services, said that many times, one of those checks is that prospective businesses in the ag reserve have limitations on septic systems, depending on topography and other factors. 

He credited Jeremy Criss, the county’s director of agricultural services, for a simple explanation.

“If I can be Jeremy Jr. again,” Scheffel said, emulating what Criss might say, “he always says all business decisions in the ag reserve are based on the ability to have a toilet.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com