Ah, the country — open fields, fresh air, early morning birdsong, the nearest noisy neighbor a full quarter-mile up the road.
It’s a lifestyle to which many in the metro area aspire. Some have taken that bold step, sold the split-level and moved out — away from it all. Others just go out for a day, maybe to walk through a corn maze or pick some apples.
But lately there’s been a problem. The country folks who just want to be left alone have been more and more often turning up at county planning hearings to defend their peace and quiet.
They’re fighting what they fear will be property damage, dusty traffic problems and constant noise from the playgrounds, zip lines, apple cannons, and other activities farms offer to those city tourists who are only out for an afternoon.
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Bob Paulson expressed the sentiment best at a hearing where he expressed his opposition to a pumpkin patch next to his property in rural Olathe: “I didn’t move out there because I wanted a lot of noise. I moved out there for quiet. I’m concerned with the people that are out there, disturbing my lifestyle,” he said.
And so a conflict is born. On one side are the farmers, who promise to be good neighbors but say they have a right to make the best, most-profitable use of their land. On the other, the neighbors who want to keep their quiet countryside. In the middle are the county planners and commissioners, trying to find a middle ground.
Development where the suburban fringe meets unincorporated agricultural land has become a hot topic in Johnson County, where neighborhood objections to new rural businesses have cropped up on a weekly basis at times. The pumpkin patch and winery that was added later have been the most high profile, but there have also been objections to a wedding barn, rodeo bulls, a youth baseball academy, and a cold-storage plant.
The problem isn’t unknown in Northland counties either, although it’s been more low-key there. Development patterns in Platte and Clay counties are different, but officials still have answered concerns about a new orchard, wedding barn, and storage facility for recreational vehicles.
Partly, conflicts have been driven by the increased interest in agritourism, a national trend being promoted by farm groups and state legislators as a way to increase earnings in a business where profit margins are notoriously iffy. Perhaps not so coincidentally, agritourism is taking off right along with public interest in food education, the outdoors, and the environment.
Agritourism — or agritainment, as it’s sometimes called — can be about anything where the general public has been invited to partake in rural activities. Such adventures include but are not limited to dude ranches, farm tours, guest stays at a farm bed and breakfast, corn mazes, and hay-rack or sleigh rides.
In this area, the typical agritourism is a you-pick pumpkin patch or an orchard, a farm winery or a barn wedding and events center.
Farm living has caught the imagination of families looking for a day outside. Some 62 million people visit farms, ranches or wineries each year, according to the National Tour Association. That amounts to a $704 million business for the 33,000 farms across the country that offer it.
It’s little wonder. Decades ago, there was not much market for agri-tourists because people agri-lived there. Agritourism was for rich Easterners, perhaps New Yorkers who “summered.”
Now, though, the rural way of life is fading from the collective memory. Non-metro counties have been losing population for years. Annual losses averaged 43,000 people per year from 2011 through 2015 and were 21,000 in 2016, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. At present, about 14 percent of the U.S. population is spread across 72 percent of its land.
A lot of that is due to migration to the cities and suburbs. As development spreads out, there’s more potential for conflict.
Jay C. Leipzig, former community development director in Belton, remembers how development there seemed to move farther and farther south.
“A few years ago, you hit Grandview and you were in the KC metro area,” he said. “Belton and Raymore are now the edge of the suburban fringe. In less than ten years it probably will be Peculiar.”
Leipzig has only been on the job as Johnson County director of planning for about three months, but already he’s seen some of the same pressures as were in the more commercial development in Belton.
“You always have the pressure between keeping the rural character of the area and attracting the small-town advantages” that attracted people there in the first place, he said.
Complicating things on the Kansas side is the strong pro-agriculture policy state lawmakers have written into Kansas law.
Leipzig wasn’t much more than a week into his new job at Johnson County when he began hearing about that. For a few months now, county commissioners and planners have been wrestling with just how much regulation they can apply to agritourist business.
Front and center in the debate is a pumpkin patch and winery owned by Kirk and Julie Berggren in the unincorporated Olathe area. The Berggrens moved their KC Pumpkin Patch from Gardner in 2014 after a particularly contentious battle with their soon-to-be neighbors. To get the necessary permit, they had to take their proposed winery off the table.
But later on, they started their wine-tasting events, citing Kansas law that allows it as long as they have a Kansas agritourism certificate.
Nearby neighbors have been on an extended campaign against the business, complaining of noise, traffic, and dust among other things. But Kirk Berggren has stuck with it, pointing to the law and saying that he’s made an effort to be a good neighbor and the complaints are overstated. Berggren has since spoken at several public hearings and said the county has tried to use codes regulation as a back-door way of shutting down his grape-crushing business.
Although Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and other county officials agree wineries are a permitted business, they are still having trouble with other aspects of the agritourism law.
They have been particularly unclear on how to apply building codes, because parts of the law seem to exempt certain agricultural buildings from local codes.
That’s been a big concern when agritourism includes an events center, like a wine-tasting room or one of the wedding events centers that are beginning to become popular in renovated barns and outbuildings.
Proposals like the one last March by Casandra and Gerald Sloan for a “farm expo” center hosting weddings and events have been particularly worrisome for the commission. The Sloans asked for a five-year permit to allow events in their 12,000-square-foot horse barn. But even with the nearest neighbor’s 1,500 and 2,500 feet away, there was still a petition on file against it.
Although the neighbors were primarily concerned with noise and traffic, commissioners at the time questioned whether there were adequate fire exits and other safety provisions. The issue came up again during a discussion of whether the county should include farm wineries as a permitted use in the rural area.
If the public is invited to an event space, people need to be protected from unsafe buildings, commissioners said, regardless of the state’s intentions about exempting agricultural structures.
“If there is a fire out there, I hate to have to say it, it’s going to come right back to us that we weren’t at least protective of the public,” Commissioner Steve Klika said.
Others, including some members of the zoning boards, worried that the regulation could spread in unintended ways to things like 4-H meetings held in barns.
“I’m concerned about mission creep,” Commissioner Mike Brown said. “I would love to have definitions and clear lines, where we stay within the lines and that’s it.”
No such uncertainty exists over how to enforce building codes on the Missouri side of the state line. Even so, farmers there have also had to walk the line between pleasing neighbors and having a viable business.
Some neighbors voiced concerns over traffic, alcohol use, security and noise about a year ago when Jewelee Cox proposed to turn her 100-year-old former tobacco barn into a wedding venue near Holt in Clay County. The barn is well-protected by trees and neighbors also recognized that Cox’s parents beautified the land, which has been in the family 25 years, she said.
Cox had to bring in engineers and an architect to fix the foundation and straighten the building, which had started to lean, but sticking to the building code was not a problem, she said.
The Tobacco Barn has been open since mid-September. It did not get an agritourism designation, but Cox had to apply for a permit to have the business in a rural zone.
Clay County hasn’t seen the same influx of rural business, but there’s a slight uptick in requests for information, said planning and zoning manager Kipp Jones. Right now, it’s residential development that’s taking off in Clay County. But entertainment and recreational uses could follow as more people move closer to the country, he acknowledged.
In Platte County, farmer Erik Olson met with neighborhood opposition as he tried to set up an orchard on land he bought three years ago just north of Weston.
The U-pick orchard features playground activities for kids — a primary concern of people who lived on nearby property. At the time, they worried about noise from the zip line, the smell of portable toilets, and food scraps from concessions that could attract vermin.
Olson agreed to some changes and got his permit, with the first sizable harvest from his 14,000 apple trees in time for this year’s Weston Applefest.
Olson managed orchards near Nebraska City, Neb., and was in agritourism for 17 years before buying the Weston property. He said he chose Weston because it was in an area with a long history of apple orchards that have since dwindled in number.
“Some people had some misconceptions of what we were going to do,” he said. “I think, all in all, everybody’s happy seeing the fruit coming back and people coming to town.”
Olson said it helps that his business isn’t open past 5 p.m.
“I want to be good neighbors with everybody as well,” he said. “... It’s a working farm and agritourism is definitely part of the income stream. When people come out from the city an hour away, they want to do something besides just pick the apples.”
That’s why Olson gives provides the other activities.
“They spend two to three hours with us and then go to town,” he said.
After apple season is over, Olson plans to build a retail center as well.
Agritourism has been an income-saving reality for farmers, especially those near metro areas, he said. As residential development pushes to the fringes, it drives up land prices. Farmers can’t spend tens of thousands of dollars per acre to increase their soybean production, so they turn to tourism, he said.
Further north, near Lathrop, the Shatto Milk Company is another example. When commodities prices made traditional dairy farming less profitable, the family switched to selling its own products, marketing heavily on glass-bottled milk in a variety of flavors, home delivery, and tours of its facilities.
Not every dispute on rural business has involved agritourism. In Johnson County, there have been neighborhood flare-ups over the mournful bawling of rodeo bulls (later removed) and the “tink, tink, tink” of metal bats hitting baseballs at a proposed youth training center.
Most recently, the neighborhood near the New Century AirCenter has been up in arms about the proposed Lineage Logistics cold-storage plant and its use of anhydrous ammonia as a refrigerant. Those neighbors, led by Mike Jensen, have spoken out against the plant regularly.
Although the potential for a chemical spill has been at the top of their concern list, Jensen and others also point to water runoff problems along with issues stemming from lighting and noise at the proposed plant and others at the industrial airport. The uptick in rural-development cases is just a sign of the times, said Leipzig.
“We’re obviously in a fast-growing, dynamic metro area,” Leipzig said. “A lot of it is just economics. We’re in a vibrant high-growth area. It’s just a matter of balancing between rural issues and, at the same, time having an economy that supports business.”
The fire code should be the standard for protecting people at rural tourism outlets, he said. Leipzig said many other issues can be solved by meetings between planning staff, developers and neighbors about berms, screening and lighting.
“It’s important to have those open discussions with people,” Leipzig said.
In Clay County, Jones said the permit process is good for the applicants as well as the neighbors.
“It’s not often there’s a (conditional-use permit) that we don’t have opposition to it, just because neighbors are concerned,” he said. “We enjoy that part of it, because we’d rather have concerned citizens than folks who just didn’t care what was happening in their neighborhood.”