Events code seeks balance

Sound and access remain the most contentious topics in the most recent draft of rural event regulations in the county. Staff presented Monday the Island County Planning Commission proposed language to manage permits for events that happen in rural zoned areas.

“I can say in my 18 years of planning experience, I’ve never seen ground-truthed or more balanced (code),” said Beverly Mesa-Zendt, assistant planning director.

The code establishes a new “middle-ground” category for organizations that hold 10 or fewer events per year, called rural commercial events. Currently, businesses must obtain a temporary use permit for this intensity.

Special events are defined in the document as happening in a single location annually or no more than five times per year. Rural event centers are facilities in rural areas regularly used for events, and the permit conditions for this category are the most stringent. Permit conditions for the most intense use can vary depending on the site and its separation from adjacent uses.

Rita and Carl Comfort at the meeting told the commission that 10 events per year isn’t enough to sustain their winery and others like it, but the requirements to receive a rural event center permit were too strict.

“I don’t know how we can look at ourselves and say this is the middle ground,” Carl Comfort said.

Neighbors to Comforts of Whidbey Winery have been especially vocal, both in support of the winery and against its activities.

The updated draft does slightly relax standards for access, as it includes language that would allow local roads that meet design standards for a 25-mph fire lane.

Currently, only county and county collector roads are allowed for access to rural event centers.

The commission Wednesday added to their recommended code that rural event centers be allowed in commercial agriculture zones.

The Board of County Commissioners has expressed weariness to this idea because of restrictive state laws regarding non-agricultural uses in this type of zoned land.

The planning commission agreed to add language to allow rural event centers, which is the most intensive use in the event code, under restrictions.

Events allowed would include corn mazes, petting zoos, harvest festivals and other farm-related activities to retain the property’s “agricultural identity.”

There are large setback requirements to reduce the impact on neighbors. Another protection included would be to limit large events to no more than two per month during the summer and not more than two consecutive weekends in a row.

Rita Comfort called the over 20 pages of code that includes a number of restrictions, exemptions and conditions a “hairball” code.

“It’s so hard for all of us to understand this,” she told the commission. “You can’t even really understand it.”