Agritourism zone may grow in Thurston

Expanding Overlay District would allow local landowners to diversify land use

The Chronicle (Centralia)August 26, 2013 

Thurston County’s planning commission will hold a public hearing Sept. 4 on a potential expansion of the Agritourism Overlay District, a layer of zoning that eases certain planning restrictions and expenses for farms and some wineries and breweries.

Scott McCormick, a Thurston County associate planner, said the boundary would be expanded to include 10 percent to 15 percent more land. Farmers in the greater Tenino area, north of Waldrick Road Southeast, are among those hoping to have their land added.

At the hearing, the commission also will recommend widening the definition of agritourism to include art tourism.

“It’s a new definition that our management came up with to encourage people to come visit,” McCormick said. “There are a number of things you can do that aren’t directly agriculture-related that could potentially draw people to the county.”

Eighteen months ago, the new Overlay District was put into effect because, at the time, zoning did not specifically address agritourism, defined as tourism intended to attract visitors to a farm or ranch. The county wanted to ensure there was clear authorization for agricultural landowners to pursue a broad range of agritourism activities, particularly those that would allow the landowners to earn additional income and for tourists to witness the importance of agricultural lands to the county’s economy and way of life, according to a 2013 project update.

Other benefits, McCormick said in the update, include preservation of farm culture, farm and open space conservation, local economic development, economic diversification, local food security, public education and on-site employment opportunities for farming families and rural residents.

The Overlay District does not change the underlying zoning or density, nor does it add any new restrictions.

Since the district was implemented, the planning department has been collecting comments and critiques from the public. The most frequent response, the department said, came from landowners who wished to be included in the district.

“I don’t think we had any idea how it would turn out,” McCormick said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by all the interest people have shown in it.”

Landowners in the Tenino area, who have a collective 600 acres, have expressed interest in participating in various agritourism activities, including a farm store or farm bakery.

The tract of land includes the Nelson Ranch, one of the longest-operating cattle ranches in the county.

“The area proposed is bisected by the Deschutes River, which provides a valuable natural asset with the potential of drawing visitors,” the planning commission said in the update. “This change may help to keep this area in active agricultural production for many years to come, providing jobs and alternatives to future conversion of agricultural land.”

In addition to altering specific boundary lines, the planning commission has discussed adding all land zoned as Long Term Agriculture to the overlay district. Doing so would add several outlying zones that were not captured with the original ordinance because of the initial focus on the southern county, Tenino in particular, according to the Thurston Planning Department.

“Our county commissioners are very driven to improve agriculture in the county,” McCormick said. “They’ve spent a lot of time and energy focused on this and they really want to encourage agriculture and make it more profitable and more successful.”

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