Taking the mystery out of agritourism in McHenry Co.

A man stands on a lookout point that helps participants get through the corn maze Sunday at Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove.
A man stands on a lookout point that helps participants get through the corn maze Sunday at Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove.

You know agritourism when you see it. And you see a lot of it in McHenry County, from farmers markets to pumpkin patches to Christmas tree farms.

Agritourism is big business in McHenry County and no small part of the $6.2 million in local tax revenue generated in the county last year, according to the McHenry County Convention & Visitors Bureau. But it has proved at times to be no small headache for the McHenry County Board because no definition of it exists in county ordinances. New agritourism operations have had to come in on conditional-use permits.

This quandary might end with the adoption of the county’s Unified Development Ordinance. More than two years in the making, the ordinance updates the county’s zoning, sign and other development-related ordinances and combines them into one document.

The draft now under review defines agritourism as activities on an existing agricultural operation “for the purpose of enjoyment, education or active involvement in the activities of the farm operation.” The list includes but is not limited to farm stands, pick-your-own agriculture, cider mills, live entertainment and other uses. Besides creating a third agricultural zoning class for “agricultural business,” the ordinance also sets limits on temporary agritourism events.

County Board Planning and Development Committee Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, said she considers the tentative language adequate. She said she expects a formal vote on the ordinance early next year, but later than the last target date of January.

“I think as presented now, it’s OK. But you know, the question isn’t what agritourism is, but what is not agritourism?” Hill said.

The county began seriously examining the issue in 2006, after long-established operations, such as the Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, began complaining that the lack of a definition was causing problems. County staff told farm owners that its size required a septic system with a capacity for 1,000 daily users.

The county spent 18 months trying to define agritourism and suggest ordinance changes, but while a task force came up with a definition, the board’s Planning Committee could not agree on it. So the county has had to grant conditional-use permits for agritourism uses, which has made for contentious County Board meetings and questionable requests.

A 2010 vote on whether to grant Stade’s Farm and Market outside Johnsburg a permit to allow for outdoor events stretched out into two hours and included a dozen proposed amendments on the board floor, despite 17 conditions and restrictions set by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The former owners of a horse track in Coral Township cited agritourism in their unsuccessful attempt to hold regular races, despite complaints from neighbors about noise, traffic, trespassing and public intoxication. More recently, the owners of a vineyard outside of Hebron have struggled with the county for the past year as it seeks to build a small winery on the property.

Agricultural businesspeople and those concerned with preserving the county’s rural western half have been watching the ordinance process closely.

They include specialty McHenry County Farm Bureau Board President Michele Aavang, who was preparing to review the ordinance Thursday evening with specialty growers and horse enthusiasts.

“I think we definitely need some parameters set up. We need some clear definitions what the rules are, and we need to provide some input before this is a done deal,” Aavang said.

Aavang, who raises all-natural beef and is a regular at the Woodstock Farmers Market, is running for the County Board, as is retired Harvard businessman Larry Smith. He said a balance must be struck between promoting agritourism and protecting the county’s rural character and discouraging spot zoning.

“I’m in favor of agritourism, but we definitely need some restrictions. We have to have a definition between a petting zoo and a circus tent,” Smith said.

As for the Richardson farm, the county’s problems with defining agritourism was a factor in its 2008 decision to annex to Spring Grove, co-owner George Richardson said. The farm, famous for its corn maze and Christmas tree farm, since has added zip lining and other attractions.

“It was difficult trying to figure out what it was going to take to satisfy the county requirements. By annexing into Spring Grove, we got to work with our lawyer and Spring Grove’s lawyer to make a definition that suited both of us,” Richardson said.

What is agritourism?

The draft McHenry County Unified Development Ordinance undergoing review creates a definition for agritourism.

• Under the present language, agritourism is “establishment of activities on an existing agricultural operation for the purpose of enjoyment, education or active involvement in the activities of the farm operation.”

• Specific activities include but are not limited to farm stands, horse and animal shows, petting zoos featuring farm animals and other domestic animals, pick-your-own crop businesses, community agriculture, corn mazes, cider mills, pumpkin patches, picnic areas, hay and tractor rides, haunted houses, live entertainment, restaurants and gift shops.

• The ordinance also defines and creates limits on “temporary agritourism events” connected with a main agricultural use of the property. Such events are limited to eight per year, no longer than four days per event, and with a minimum of three days between events.

• A new “agricultural business” zoning classification also is proposed.

SOURCE: Draft version, McHenry County Unified Development Ordinance

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