Amendments to Boulder County’s Land Use Code approved

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Changes to the County's Land Use Code will allow farmers to more easily build season extending agricultural structures, like hoop houses and high tunnels.
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On Dec. 13, at a near-empty board meeting at the Boulder County Courthouse, proposed amendments to the County’s Land Use Code got the rubber stamp of approval. It marked the end of a nearly year-long cooperative effort between farmers and County staff.

And the changes look promising for local market farmers.

The Land Use Code, for all intents and purposes, is the law of the open space land here in Boulder County. It stipulates how open space can be used, for what purposes, and outlines all the rules and regulations for farming it. The code had not been updated since 2012, and Nicole Wobus, the Land Use Department’s long-range planning manager, says the County has been gathering feedback and information from farmers ever since an open house in January 2018.

“So we started broad and just honed in after the open house, after we had identified some priorities,” Wobus says. “And we just kept honing in further and further after that.”

After the open house outreach project, ensuing public meetings and surveys, literature reviews, and farm visits, the Department identified several core aspects of the code that needed updating.

Last Thursday, at the public hearing, Wobus and several other Land Use staff members sat before the Board of County Commissioners to review their findings and amendments.

First up, they talked about Verified Established Farm Use (VEFU), a fresh designation that will serve as sort of a fast-pass for farmers in Boulder County. Existing market farmers who contribute reliably and significantly to producing local food, who make productive use of open-space land and do so with minimal impact to it, will be granted a VEFU designation. The County can then use that gold-star to expedite any review processes the farmer wants to apply for, knowing that legitimate agricultural practices are in place.

VEFU-designated farms would be allowed to host greater numbers of attendees for farm camps and demonstration classes. They would be allowed an average of 200 daily vehicle visits and an occupancy load of 150 people.

Unfortunately for small farms, only large operations with a track record of large-scale agricultural activity will qualify. Which is to say, small farms with small farm sales likely won’t make the cut.

Next on the docket was farm sales, something the County intends on expanding. Many farmers at January’s outreach session expressed frustration with the narrow market for selling farm produce in Boulder County. The code’s previous language limited the number of days on which they could operate farm stands and farm stores, and it confined agricultural sales to “zone districts.”

Among several re-definitions and semantic alterations, the amendments reject the need to constrict the duration of farm sales. They also expand the zone districts wherein agricultural sales can occur.

Farm events were another bone of contention brought up at the January open house. The new amendments will allow for more, and larger, annually hosted farm events, and farmers will now be able to use the permanent structures on their property for these events (which was previously prohibited).

In a similar vein, more farm camps and demonstration classes can be held every year, the number of people allowed to attend them will be higher, and farmers can use their existing structures.

The final proposed update was an amendment to the County’s regulation of hoop houses, high tunnels and shade structures — or “season extending agricultural structures” (SEAS). In the past, SEAS have been considered part of a farm’s floor area, and therefore building any new structure that increased a farm’s floor space by more than 500 square feet would trigger a site plan review from the County. This process invariably costs thousands of dollars, and takes several months to complete, making building SEAS logistically challenging to say the least.

The new updates clarify the definition of these structures, designating dimensions and specifying them as “any structure designed to extend the growing season.” They also allow farmers with more than five acres to build up to 3,000 square feet of SEAS without triggering a site plan review.

When Wobus finished her presentation, the Board of Commissioners had only a few questions for her. Then, they unanimously agreed to adopt the proposed changes and update the Land Use Code.

These amendments represent progress for agriculture in Boulder County. They could mark the beginning of a new era for market farming, one that is a few steps closer to the ideal. Though, even Wobus admits there is always work to do.

“We’re always working,” she says. “We have a long list of code updates and different topics we’re still working our way through.”

While this is a good start to updating the law of the land, certainly, its evolution is far from over.