Agritourism Debate Heats Up Capitol Again

Aug 18, 2015

A rural lawmaker is reviving an old debate as he tries to protect agritourism.  Republican Representative Neil Combee of Polk County wants to promote an industry he says is keeping family farms above water.

Agritourism means country weddings to industry promoters, but not everyone agrees.

Couples fly from South America to Marty Higgenbotham’s 100-acre ranch in Polk County to tie the knot under grandfather oaks and Spanish moss. He considers it his agritourism mainstay.

“The biggest challenge in the agriculture community right now is to stay in businesses. To keep it as a farm. To keep a farm a farm. And you’ve got to figure out how to make a few dollars in order to do that.”

But now that fire inspectors are questioning the safety of his barn, Higgenbotham says he feels his business is under attack. Combee’s bill, he says, would fix that.

It would prohibit local governments from enforcing any ordinance that regulates agritourism. Combee says one reason he filed the bill is because Polk County officials asked for clarification of a 2013 law that defines the industry.

“We want to provide some clarification by making it clear that regardless of the age of ordinances or how many, that the authority to regulate rests with the state.”

Since the bill passed, industry promoters have described everything from country weddings and you-pick-it berry farms to skydiving as agritourism.

David Cruz, assistant general counsel for the Florida League of Cities, says his organization will be watching to make sure the agritourism door doesn’t swing open too far.

“For example, a concert on land that’s ag. Or a festival, or other types of activities that aren’t really tied to agricultural activity.”

Cruz says the law never anticipated country weddings. To a struggling farmer, the wedding business may be a lifesaver, Cruz says. But that might not be the case for a neighbor who has to put up with the traffic and the noise.