A proposal to boost capacity in structures used for agritourism will likely not be part of Frederick County’s annual recommendations to its delegates in the Maryland General Assembly.
Frederick County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater, D, said she plans to rescind her legislation, which would’ve exempted agritourism venues from certain building and public safety requirements, at the council’s next meeting.
The proposal sought to add Frederick County to a list of 10 counties exempt from certain building permits on structures used for agritourism, which includes a variety of activities conducted on a farm and offered to the public or invited groups, according to county documents. This includes venues in which a small number of attendees are quickly in and out of indoor settings, such as farm tours and Christmas tree sales, and more crowded settings, such as breweries, county officials said.
Fitzwater said her intent was to support farmers and increase their agritourism opportunities. But after discussions about how the proposal would limit the county’s ability to enforce public safety requirements, and then hearing concerns from permitting and fire and rescue personnel, the councilwoman said her plan wouldn’t accomplish what she’d hoped it would.
“I’m always up for being corrected,” Fitzwater said.
County law restricts capacity to less than 50 in agritourism buildings that haven’t obtained permitting to host a larger number of occupants. Permitting would ensure occupants and public safety personnel that the building has the number of exits sufficient for its capacity limit, for example.
The proposal would’ve raised the limit to 200 and allowed farmers to host larger venues and events, but it prompted concerns for the safety of occupants and fire and rescue personnel who would respond in case of emergency.
Fitzwater’s change of course Wednesday came hours after County Attorney Bryon Black said in an email to county officials that the proposal would prevent the county from imposing additional life safety requirements. This negated misconceptions that the legislation was “enabling,” meaning the county would retain the ability to implement such requirements on agritourism buildings, regardless of their capacity.
Fitzwater said she was under the impression the county would still be able to enforce certain safety requirements under the proposal. Clarification from the county attorney was part of the reason she isn’t moving forward with it.
Criticism from the county’s top permitting and fire and rescue personnel during a public comment session for the proposal also informed Fitzwater’s decision, she said.
“It would not only put the Frederick County citizens at risk attending these venues, but it also puts a huge risk on the responding public safety members when they’re called for an emergency,” Frederick County Fire Marshal Troy Grossnickle said during Tuesday’s public comment session.
Agritourism buildings in the county include older, wooden-type structures that can be prone to fires, Grossnickle said. Eliminating the requirement for permits and inspections would strip the county’s ability to ensure public safety at agricultural venues used for weddings, banquets or other large events, he added.
County Fire Chief Tom Coe echoed the fire marshal’s concerns. Building and permitting requirements are “integral” to ensuring buildings are safe to occupy, he said Tuesday.
The proposal also would’ve prevented county permitting personnel from assuring members of the public that agritourism buildings are safe to occupy, said Gary Hessong, director for the Department of Permits and Inspections.
A county farmer who supported the proposal, however, said increasing the capacity limit would’ve allowed him and others to expand their agritourism operations and encouraged additional farmers to join the industry.
“I think that this additional use of agricultural buildings will definitely help farmers to survive in Frederick County,” Tom Barse, owner of Milkhouse Brewery in Mount Airy, said during Tuesday’s comment session.
Fitzwater’s proposal was one of four items being considered for the legislative package the county’s state delegation will bring to the Maryland General Assembly in January. The council will revisit its recommendations next Tuesday.