WOODSTOCK – For three weeks over the holidays, Oney’s Tree Farm becomes an agritourism business as shoppers look for Christmas trees, decorative wreaths and other holiday fare.
For almost half a century, customers have flocked to the 200-acre tree and landscape farm west of Woodstock to cut down their own trees or buy them pre-cut, and visit the 2,400-square-foot historic barn that serves as the business’ gift shop. Ron and Dawn Peterson bought the business in 1984, and Dawn has run it alone since her husband died last year.
But she noticed a snag when she reviewed McHenry County’s proposed Unified Development Ordinance. While it defines and protects the county’s lucrative agritourism industry, it limits the size of gift shops for temporary agritourism uses to either 600 square feet or 40 percent of the structure, whichever is smaller, unless they meet applicable building code requirements.
Peterson’s custom-made wreaths alone take up 1,000 square feet, and her checkout area alone would gobble up more than half of the 600-square-foot limit. That is, unless she brings the historic barn up to modern county code for a seasonal retail business that makes up about 5 percent of Oney’s gross revenue.
“It’s a 110-year-old building,” Peterson said with a laugh. “To get that up to commercial grade is going to be very cost prohibitive.”
Tweaking or eliminating the limit is one of several changes Peterson and others are requesting as the Zoning Board of Appeals solicits public comment on the proposed 300-page ordinance in the months before it goes to the County Board for ratification. The last public hearing was held Monday, and people can submit written comments until next Friday.
More than three years in the making, the ordinance updates the county’s zoning, sign and other development-related ordinances and combines them into one document. The ordinance only applies to unincorporated areas. The zoning board has scheduled two meetings April 23 and April 24 to recommend changes to the ordinance based on the public comments received.
Ralph Arndt, who co-owns Prairie Sky Orchard north of Union with his wife, SueEllen, said he submitted several common-sense changes. He, too, wants the retail area expanded – 600 square feet is slightly larger than a two-car garage and is not friendly for people with baby strollers or wheelchairs, he said.
But Arndt also noticed that while the ordinance would allow his 2 ½-acre apple orchard and other small operations to sell outside produce in lean years, it would forbid them from making pies, jams or anything else unless the fruit was grown on their property. And in a quirk he said was likely an oversight, he would not be allowed to sell bottled water to people outside picking his apples.
Arndt, like Peterson, made clear that he is happy the ordinance actually defines agritourism. The lack of a definition means that new businesses or changes to existing ones require conditional use permits, which has led to more than a few headaches for County Board members and businesspeople alike.
“There’s been a lot of confusion over the years. We have a joke – if you want three different answers to the same question, go to the county,” Arndt said.
The Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove complained in 2006 after county staff told its owners that its size required a septic system with a capacity for 1,000 daily users. A 2010 vote on whether to grant Stade’s Farm and Market outside of Johnsburg a permit for outdoor events stretched into two hours when County Board members tried to tack on a dozen proposed amendments on top of the 17 conditions and restrictions set by the zoning board. 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.
Agritourism and its supporters have argued over the years that the red tape gets in the way of an industry that as of 2012 brought $6.5 million in local tax revenue to McHenry County, according to the U.S. Travel Association. When the zoning board and the County Board’s Planning and Development Committee went through the second draft of the proposed agritourism language, the McHenry County Convention and Visitors Bureau liked what they saw and asked that the proposed policies remain intact.
“Any changes made to the policies already adopted over the past few UDO meetings would hinder, rather than support, this important industry as a visitor draw to McHenry County,” bureau Executive Director Jaki Berggren wrote in a Dec. 17 letter.
The ordinance draft now under review defines agritourism as activities on an existing agricultural operation “for the purpose of attracting the public for the enjoyment, education or active involvement in the activities of the agricultural operation.” Besides creating a third agricultural zoning class for “agricultural business,” the ordinance also sets limits on temporary agritourism events.
Planning and Development Committee Chairman Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, said he is encouraged by the feedback received to date on the entire UDO. The committee met 48 times to discuss and review it, by itself and jointly with the zoning board, from the time he was appointed chairman in January 2013 to its March 2013 release to public review.
“The feedback has generally been, ‘We like what you’ve done, but we would tweak these things.’ I’ve heard nobody say, don’t go forward,” Gottemoller said.
The zoning board later this month will recommend changes to the ordinance based on public comment and forward it back to Gottemoller’s committee, which could make changes of its own before forwarding it to the County Board for a vote. It would go on 30-day public review, and County Board members will schedule at least one meeting, likely two, to review the ordinance before its voting meeting.
Peterson said she has submitted some simple fixes to the dilemma facing Oney’s. If the square footage can’t be increased, she said, she would be in compliance if the square footage for her registers and farm-grown products is not factored in.
“[The county is] trying to work with us,” Peterson said. “This is not a witch hunt. It’s open communication of what’s going to work.”
On the Net
You can read the proposed Unified Development Ordinance and learn how to submit written comment at http://shawurl.com/10wo.