Scandia council to consider ordinance for rural events

After months of fine-tuning, at the Nov. 5 meeting the Scandia Planning Commission finished work on a new ordinance that would allow commercial events outside the commercial zone.

The Scandia City Council will look at the ordinance on Tuesday, Nov. 19.

It started as a request from a resident who wanted to host weddings on his scenic rural property but could not find wording in the Scandia code to cover this.

His neighbor, who was against the idea, now serves on the Planning Commission.

One goal of the 2030 Comprehensive Plan, based on input by residents, was to limit most commercial activities to the downtown and Highway 97 corridor, plus historical commercial nodes such as Abrahamson’s Nursery, Crabtree Corner and the Big Marine Store. The new ordinance would allow for-profit events in areas zoned Agricultural Core and General Rural on 20 or more acres.

To soften the impact, the Planning Commission included language prohibiting the discharge of firearms and competitions among motorized vehicles, such a tractor pulls.

Weddings and other ceremonies, dances, festivals and picnics that are consistent with the rural and historical character of the community would be allowed.

Someone wanting to host a for-profit event would have to submit a master plan of the entire property showing the buildings, driveway and parking. The number attending, parking, sanitary facilities, security, lighting and sound amplification would have to be spelled out in the plan.

Sound amplification would be allowed for just the ceremony part of the event, as in weddings, anniversaries and retirement parties.

Hours would be limited to 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., plus a half hour to get all the guests off the property.

If the applicant’s proposal meets city approval, an interim use permit, which ends if the property changes hands, would be issued. In order to continue hosting events, the applicant would have to get an annual operating permit approved each year.

The Planning Commission included the opportunity for frequent city review because allowing for-profit rural events is a drastic change from the Comprehensive Plan.

“It’s an experiment,” Commissioner Peter Schwarz said.

“You really have to protect your residents,” Commissioner Sue Bies added.

The vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Steven Philippi voting against recommending the new ordinance for approval.

After the meeting Philippi said he is not opposed to rural events in principle but sees the current proposal and process as too flawed to move forward.

First, there was insufficient public engagement. The City Council was wrong, Philippi said, in denying the Planning Commission’s request for a committee to include members of the public at large. He said the Scenic Viewshed Ordinance, another new initiative undertaken by the Planning Commission, “was vastly improved and focused by the participation of skeptical, even dissenting citizens.”

His second objection is that the rural events ordinance is too vague in purpose and too broad in permission. It should be tied to comprehensive plan goals, he said, such as maintaining rural character and supporting the continuation of agricultural uses.

Philippi said he is not convinced that the community as a whole would benefit from granting special new development rights to a few property owners. “At best, it may have a modest, indirect impact on Scandia’s finances, say if the supplemental income is used to better maintain an existing barn that helps stabilize property values. At worst, it may help preserve the existing tax structure that privileges agriculturally zoned properties with a tax rate half that of residential uses and one-sixth that of commercial uses, while blurring the connection to actual use.”

The foremost objective of city officials when considering new initiatives should be to do no harm, Philippi said, but this ordinance has significant potential for negative impacts to neighboring property owners. “Will the Council even-handedly weigh the concerns of current users in relation to the proposed new use?” he asked. “Can reliance on prescriptive conditions assure minimal negative impacts?”