Your Local Haunted Corn Maze Is Infuriating the Neighbors
(Bloomberg) -- The neighbors were fine with apple picking and toy tractors. Then zombies swarmed the pumpkins and the zoning officer wanted a word.
Agritourism was supposed to be a profit bonanza for Tabora Farms, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and other family-owned U.S. farms that have jumped on the rural land-use trend. Instead, some are running into homeowner gripes and legal bills while homebuilders, eager to turn fields into luxury subdivisions, circle with offers of quick-and-easy riches.
In New York, farmers say their cows and horses can’t handle a wedding barn’s fireworks. In one of America’s wealthiest suburbs, outside Washington, D.C., one farm’s bid for recreational activities has dragged for more than three years. A Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, couple, appealing an order to stop renting a camping tent on their 42 acres, are caught between a state government that hails non-traditional uses of farmland and local authorities trying to balance the demands for revenue and rural tranquility.
The biggest growth industry in the rural U.S. is outdoor entertainment, which includes agritourism, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Yesteryear, tourists may have paid for apple-bobbing and costume parades. Now, wine tastings, for-fee fishing and ziplines are a hit. So are artillery-grade cannons that turn pumpkins into surface-to-air missiles traveling 600 miles (966 kilometers) per hour.
At Tabora Farms, some neighbors are unhappy about seasonal “haunted” cornfields and paintballs-versus-zombies skirmishes in the pumpkin patch. On autumn weekend nights, visitors speed down country byways and turn cars around in their driveways, they say, and their screams and laughter shatter the quiet.
“It used to be a really lovely corner but now the place is like being next door, quite honestly, to a Wawa,” said Robert McGraw, a 90-year-old corn and soybean farmer, referring to a convenience-store and gasoline chain widespread in Bucks County.
More than half of U.S. states have laws regulating agritourism and its offshoot, agritainment, according to the National Agricultural Law Center, a Fayetteville, Arkansas, service run by the state university. Colorado employs an agritourism director, and state universities in California and Massachusetts run seminars on the topic geared to farm owners.
In New York’s Finger Lakes region, livestock owners are pleading with Lansing town officials to ban fireworks at Dutch Harvest Farm, where a 7,000-square-foot wedding barn is under construction. The noise can spook animals in their fields, leading them to break through fences, they argue, saying even those indoors have potential to panic and injure themselves.
Owner Laura Huizinga, though, said that fireworks are part of the country experience. She described herself and her husband as “mom-and-pop people” with newborn twin boys, trying to make a living by offering a homespun alternative to over-the-top wedding mills.
“We just want to be good neighbors, be a part of the community,” said Huizinga, 32.
On a GoFundMe.com page set up on Oct. 21, a Bangor, Pennsylvania, couple are seeking $10,000 as they appeal a municipal order to stop renting a 10-foot-by-10-foot camping tent on property zoned for agriculture. “Our goal was that the income from the tent would help offset the cost of our property taxes,” owner Karen Thatcher-Smith wrote.
From 2010 through 2016, a record 1,350 non-metropolitan U.S. counties lost population, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though rural areas had a slight uptick from July 2016 through July 2017, the increase was greater in cities.
At the same time, agritourism has exploded. The industry generated at least $700 million in revenue across the country in 2012, according to the most recent agriculture department research. By 2015, though, Virginia alone had reaped $2.2 billion, according to the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Open space is at a premium in Fairfax, Virginia, a Washington suburb whose $112,844 median household income makes it America’s third-richest county, U.S. Census figures show. Even amid the wealth, the 225-acre Whitehall Farms -- heavy on cattle and pigs, school tours and produce sales -- operates at a loss, according to Jeff Waters, whose wife’s family has owned the land since 1960.
Whitehall’s pitch to add paintball, seemingly allowed under Virginia’s 2014 agritourism law, was rejected by neighbors. In August, after three years of back-and-forth, a zoning board denied permission to operate a rope obstacle course. Legal bills from both fights totaled more than $70,000, Waters said.
“The land is worth a ton of money, and my wife is convinced the zoning board wants us to sell so they’ll have revenue from 42 McMansions,” Waters, 63, said in an interview. “I think they’re just control freaks.”
At Tabora Farms, the violation notices began arriving in March.
“The issue, in my mind, is whether it’s agricultural or entertainment,” Dave Taylor, the zoning officer who issued citations over a special-event tent, an outdoor dining area and other issues, said in an interview. “The township’s interest is in the farm operating within the law.”
Caleb Torrice, the farm’s 43-year-old owner, said he was puzzled by the onslaught six years after he and his wife, Patricia, bought the 10.6 acres for $2.1 million in 2012. Free festivals have drawn throngs for years without complaint, he said. In July, more than 100 people packed a public hearing to show their support. The former owner, at a public hearing in August, told officials that made-from-scratch baked goods and sandwiches, another source of contention, were prepared and sold on-site with the township’s knowledge.
“You buy a farm and you plant 4,000 fruit trees -- those trees aren’t going to produce for five years,” said Torrice, who has four school-age children. “You still need to support yourself. Agritainment is going to do that.”
A half-mile down the road from Tabora, the former Peace Valley Winery is under construction, re-named The Vineyard at Peace Valley and with 12 houses planned to sell for around $850,000. Torrice said he routinely turns down offers to sell to developers. For now, a GoFundMe.com account has raised $1,430 toward attorney and engineering bills of $50,000, and $15 T-shirts, also part of the fundraiser, are for sale alongside cider doughnuts and vampire-themed cookies.
“The Torrices send their kids to local schools, they pay local taxes, they’re part of the community,” Paul Stillman, a 53-year-old attorney, said as he sipped a mid-morning coffee on Oct. 22 on Tabora’s patio. “The coffee is more expensive here, but it’s better quality and I can stay as long as I like. At Wawa, they only let you sit for 15 minutes.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.