Huffman fighting county to return barn’s identity

Associate Editor

FREDERICK, Md. (June 21, 2016) — The bad news about her barn couldn’t have come at a worse time for Taylor Huffman.
Last March, she and her husband were working to purchase the family farm in Thurmont from her recently deceased father’s estate. For more than a decade, the barn had served as an events venue, hosting up to 30 weddings a year and supplementing the farm’s crop revenue, she said. They had decided to redo the barn’s electrical system, and when a county inspector there to approve the work casually asked how the barn was used, Huffman said she told him it hosted weddings. 
The bad news came quick: It was no longer a wedding venue, the inspector said. The farm’s agricultural zoning didn’t permit it, and it was in violation of several county building standards.
This posed a few problems. The change significantly affected her loan qualifications to buy the farm without the venue’s income, and it instantly halted her plans to oversee the 447-acre property without a second job. On top of all that, she and her husband were also dealing with the farm’s debt she would inherit — about $1 million.
“My plan was not to have my real estate job once we settled,” said Huffman, a Realtor with Long & Foster. “Once we lost that income, I had to stay in real estate.”
The commercial use of barns has been a vexing issue for Frederick County’s government this spring. Like Huffman’s barn, several farms have had to shutter venue operations over the last month after county employees said the facilities lacked the proper permits and buildings standards.
Several weddings couldn’t be held and a local high school was forced to relocate its annual prom to Frederick’s Holiday Inn in early May after the county shut down events at Shade Trees & Evergreens, an outdoor events facility that also includes a nursery operation (though it’s not zoned agricultural).
The venue, which has been in operation for a decade, didn’t have building, occupancy, electric or plumbing permits and the health department had not inspected a septic system, county officials reportedly said.
The county is working to improve its standards now, said Kate Albaugh, the county’s agriculture business development specialist.
If a farm wants to use a barn as a commercial venue, the operation has to fall under the county’s definition of a “country inn,” which is permitted within an agricultural zone, Albaugh said.
That requires the barn to be part of a facility built before Jan. 24, 1977 that sells overnight or temporary lodging and meals to transient guests in no more than eight rooms. It also must provide at least one of the following services: a restaurant, banquet facility or catering service and it may include meeting rooms.
Farmers have made changes to their property to meet the designation, Albaugh said.
“Right now, to do it is a little bit challenging, but a lot of people have gone through that process,” she said. “But, right now, there’s nothing that just guarantees it for working farmers.”
The county government, which wants to keep agriculture as a large part of the county’s economy, she said, is investigating what other counties have done in similar situations. Any ordinance changes would have to be approved by the county council.
But with agriculture continually ceding property to the state’s expanding commercial and residential interests, it’s important the county give farmers as much flexibility as possible to diversify their operations, said Audrey Wolfe, the county Farm Bureau’s second vice president.
Farmers “are doing whatever they can to keep going,” she said last week on the 135-acre cattle farm she runs with her husband in Myersville.
She and her husband recently spent about $18,000 to rewire the century-old barn’s electrical system, and they spent about $20,000 to replace its siding 15 years ago, she said.
And the costs of farm production only keep increasing, Huffman said. Cracking down on barns only makes the problem worse, she said.
She chuckles about hearing recently about a farmer who was told to add an additional fire escape to his barn because there was only one exit — even though it was nearly 50 feet wide.
“The county hasn’t really tried to address or work with landowners who want to do this sort of thing,” she said. “They don’t really know how to treat the barns. I just wish the county would find a way.”