A history of camping at Pinwheel Farm

Approx. 1999
COUNTY PROHIBITS ME FROM ALLOWING OTHERS TO CAMP AT MY FARM: A family which I had personally known ever since moving to Lawrence, who had been squatting in home-made structures along the Kansas River, had their homesite bulldozed. I offered to let them camp on unused land on my farm, as well as to replant a garden on my farm. My very clear expectations regarding no smoking (fire safety hazard) and proper attention to sanitation regulations led them to refuse my offer of a campsite, but they accepted my offer of using garden space. The press got wind of my offer, and printed an article that referenced my offer but not their refusal of it. In discussing the situation with County officials, I learned that I could not legally allow others to camp on my agricultural land, anyhow. At that time, since the inquiry was for a specific situation, I did not realize that this ban applied even to myself camping on the land in any way, or to the use of “camping” equipment for short-term guests or non-residential (office/break room) situations.

A TENT IS USED AT THE FARM FOR NON-CAMPING PURPOSES: My housemates got married at the farm, and pitched a large rented canopy in the pasture for several days as the wedding site. It came to light this past spring that some neighbors thought this activity was homeless people—lots of them–camping there.

APPROX. 2002:
A house guest at our home, who practiced meditation, constructed an eclectic temporary meditation space/shelter using the satellite dish that we intend eventually to use as the roof of a shade structure for the sheep.  He did this on the pasture near the tabernacle that we use for outdoor sunrise services. He spent time meditating there, but lived with us in the house. This seemed acceptable as an exercise of freedom of religion, and we received no complaints about it. He was with us for a few months during the late fall and winter.

APPROX. 2003:
My 14-year-old nephew stayed with me for the summer. To afford each of us some privacy, he pitched a “bedroom” tent outside my bedroom window where we were within speaking distance through the open window. He dined and used sanitary facilities in the house. This was in full view of the neighbors to the east, and we did not receive any complaints.

May, 2006- Oct. 2006
THREATENED WITH STEEP FINES FOR CAMPING AT MY OWN FARM FOR AGRICULTURAL PURPOSES: After a year abroad, I returned to Lawrence a year before the lease on my farm ended. I negotiated with the tenants to use some garden space, have access to tools, use the driveway for access, and put a tent camper in the barnyard area for me and volunteers to use in relation to resuming my vegetable crop production for Farmer’s Market. I lived in town, and worked full time off-farm as well for some of the time. In addition to the camper, we pitched a very small tent in a shady spot on the edge of the pasture for a cool resting area on hot afternoons.

The tenants became disgruntled (we were engaged in mediation to try to settle some $23,000 of damages they had done to the farm) and reported to the Douglas County Zoning and Codes (DCZC) officials that I was living in a camper. Keith Dabney, Dept. head, went over the regulations with me with a fine-tooth comb, but we could not find any loophole that specifically allowed me to even possess a non-erected tent camper on agricultural land, let alone to use it for any purpose whether as storage, an office, rest area, or for actually sleeping in. He generously allowed me 30 days to “cease and desist” camping and remove the camper. The notice letter threatened to levy a $500/day fine for the code violation of camping, using a camper for any other purpose, or even possessing a camper on my own land. I complied fully with the cease and desist notice. Since then, my parents in another Kansas county have had to store the camper they gave me as a birthday gift.

House guests in August and September spent a lot of time outdoors, in preference of indoors, for religious and comfort reasons. For increased privacy and convenience, we rented a conventional portable chemical toilet during the time they were here. All were entitled to full use of the house at all times. During their stay, they worked in the gardens and rebuilt the barn that had been allowed to deteriorate by the tenants during my absence from the farm 2004-2006.

INCREASED WORK WITH VOLUNTEER/LEARNERS: I joined the WWOOF network as a host farm, and became active with Growing Growers in the KC “foodshed” area. These programs link people who want to learn to farm through volunteering their labor with “host farms” that want to teach and share farming experience in exchange for free help. WWOOFers depend on the host farm to provide room and board, as well as learning experiences, in exchange for their voluntary labor. With Growing Growers, some (but not all) learners want lodging on their host farm in order to more fully experience the farm life. Between 2008 and May, 2010, I hosted many volunteers in my home on the farm. Working with volunteers became a significant aspect of the farm operation, with the goal of promoting “ag literacy” and laying the foundation for future generations of farmers.

COMPREHENSIVE LONGRANGE PLANNING FOR PINWHEEL FARM REAL ESTATE AND ACTIVITIES: I began working with Lawrence/Douglas County Planning Department (LDPD) staff and other officials to flesh out details of a comprehensive long-range plan for the farm and its real estate. Of the 5 parcels that comprise the farm, not one is entirely compliant with current codes. My goal is to work towards bringing each of these properties into a more compliant condition, eventually combining 3 of them to end up with a 10+ acre farm property which will be properly vested to allow a new energy-efficient farmhouse to be built on it some day, and 2 small residential properties (the main farm house on 1+ acre, and the little house on a city lot), which will generally be occupied by people involved in the farm operation. This effort will likely take 10-20 years. This seems like slow progress indeed, but in the context of our 100-year plan for the farm, it is reasonably quick.

OPPORTUNITY TO PUT FARM SUCCESSION PLAN IN ACTION: Concurrently, I found a compatible family wishing to be involved long-term with Pinwheel Farm, and arranged to lease them most of the main farmhouse. The plan is to renovate the small home which I am purchasing adjacent to the farm, and I will live in that smaller house while working the farm. This is a key part of my retirement and farm succession plan…to “cultivate” a new family of farmers to gradually work into sharing the farm operation, and eventually perhaps take over the entire farm, while ensuring living space for myself as long as I wish.

HEIGHTENED NEED FOR LEGAL AG-RELATED CAMPING: Renting the main floor of the house left me with no lodging for volunteers, hence far less participation at the farm from volunteers in the 2010 summer/fall season. Also, since I was occupying basement space in the farmhouse, I was further removed from the farm environment which makes it more difficult to operate the farm. These limitations contributed to the death from heat-related causes of the guardian llama who protected the sheep flock from stray dogs, coyotes, etc. Until the llama can be replaced, the flock is extra vulnerable. Camping on the pasture was my first thought for compensating for this terrible loss, but it is illegal for me or a volunteer to do so under current enforcement conditions. This was confirmed by my request for an exception to the Director of the DCZC, which was turned down.

CONDITIONAL USE PERMIT (CUP) SOUGHT THROUGH REGULAR CHANNELS, TO ALLOW CAMPING AT THE FARM: Knowing that leasing the house would force the need for a different scenario for housing volunteers, I incorporated the need for legal camping into my conversations with LDPD. From the information we had, and the firm precedent for zero tolerance on camping on ag land expressed by DCZC, we determined that the best way to work through the existing legal structure was to apply for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to allow strictly supervised camping for farm-related people only—farm volunteers, and farm residents’ family and friends. (CUP-related materials will be posted elsewhere on this web site).

CUP PROTESTED BY NEIGHBORS: Since this neighborhood prides itself on “live and let live”, and many long-time residents carry on non-compliant activities with impunity, I expected that our modest request for strictly limited camping would be supported or at least tolerated by my neighbors. As near as we knew, past “family and friend” camping had not been an issue, since no complaints had been filed except by the disgruntled tenants.

Alas, this was not the case with a number of very vocal neighbors, who organized themselves to fight the proposed camping. The Planning Commission clearly wanted to approve the CUP but felt the neighbors should be appeased. This led to conditions being proposed such as disallowing any guns other than those owned by me on the farm, requiring my volunteers to wear armbands when walking on the city streets, and many requirements more stringent than those applicable to neighboring city residents. Any violation of such onerous conditions would result in withdrawal of the permit at any time. This scenario was clearly unworkable from many perspectives, and severely abridged the constitutional rights of potential volunteers. We asked that the CUP be deferred.

THE PUBLIC BELIEVES NON-COMMERCIAL PRIVATE CAMPING IS LEGAL IN DOUGLAS COUNTY: Aside from neighbors, virtually everyone I’ve talked to believes that it is legal to camp, and to allow friends to camp, on one’s own property. Most people are astounded to learn that it is punishable by a $500/day fine, and freely admit to having broken this regulation. Even one of the Planning Commission members admitted this in the public hearing.

Late Summer, 2010:
INCREASED INQUIRIES FROM POTENTIAL WWOOFERS: Between late July and early December, 2010, an estimated 3,000 hours of volunteer labor throughout the fall and winter season were offered, contingent on the farm being able to provide even the most rudimentary lodging. Many WWOOFers prefer to camp, to have some private time after working long hours with a host farmer. The farmer, too, appreciates privacy. These opportunities to host WWOOFers have been lost because they decided to go elsewhere because we could not allow them to camp.

A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON THE REGULATIONS: In reviewing the zoning regulations and various correspondences once again, in light of learning from the Farm Bureau Legal Foundation (FBLF) web site that there is a State law that ag uses should be exempt from more stringent local regulation, I realized that in fact the issue has never been the zoning regulation itself, but rather the way in which the regulation has been interpreted and enforced by the county. The zoning regulations do not explicitly prohibit camping, use of tents, or possession of RVs/campers. They are silent about such things. They do provide for various other, more permanent, less flexible, ways of housing guests, farm workers and family members on land that is zoned agricultural, so that the use—non-rent housing of farm-related people—is clearly allowed. They do not specify that the listed means are the only way such people can be sheltered.

My hope was that the FBLF and I could work cooperatively with DCZC staff to develop clearer guidance for the enforcement of zoning codes relative to private camping connected with agricultural enterprises as a legitimate “ag use” in some cases, and a legitimate extension of other allowable uses (residential guest house, etc) where appropriate. Handling this as a clarification of interpretation relative to the precedence of state law could have allowed a rapid change in enforcement without being subject to the annoyance of having to gain the approval of a non-farming neighborhood which is already aroused against me. This could fast-track approval for me, my family and my volunteers to camp, allowing me to make use of some of the volunteer labor that has been offered for the fall, and to camp for security purposes.

An interesting twist is that the county regulations are equally silent on the matter of hunting on agricultural land (as well as a great number of other activities not directly associated with the production of food or fiber). Since the regulations are utterly silent on camping; hunting is allowed; and the state law prohibits local governments from restricting agricultural uses; it seems awfully shaky that the county feels it has grounds to prohibit the use of tents or campers for agricultural-related purposes. Furthermore, the state has, in recent years, expressly decided to promote “agritourism” (which would include the “immersion” agricultural experience of camping and working on a farm through WWOOF or similar program), created a department to manage it, and passed regulations to create a safer liability environment to facilitate agritourism.

However, Douglas County Farm Bureau (DCFB) needed to approve the issue in order for the FBLF to work on it. DCFB postponed discussing the matter for several months, and the window of opportunity for utilizing current WWOOF offers closed. Meanwhile, the farm season was one of the farm’s most disastrous, due to the inability to utilize the available, eager, out-of-town volunteers. Until DCFB makes a favorable recommendation, the KFLF cannot officially proceed to look into the situation, although the KFBLF seems interested in doing so. One KFBLF attorney suggested that I might try to seek a declaratory judgment against the county in the matter, with by myself or with the aid of a lawyer.

In January, I requested the CUP be placed on the Planning Commission agenda once again. It was scheduled for March 30. This time we narrowed it down to just camping (a mix of tents and RVs/campers) on the parcels for which I currently hold title—the 10 acres farm ground, and the white farmhouse grounds (north of the house only), due to opposition from the seller of the other 3 properties.

I tried to arrange for a facilitator for a community meeting regarding the CUP, but was turned down by many individuals and organizations specializing in meeting facilitation and conflict resolution. I asked the CUP be deferred until April 25 to give more time for a meeting.

Meanwhile, years of research and experiences began to settle into a new pattern. I learned that the Douglas County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) could, in fact, hear an appeal of the County’s interpretation of their zoning code. This information regarding my right to appeal DCZC decisions had never been provided to me, and in fact was recently denied by DCZC staff until I quoted the State regulations to them. Had I realized that I had this right, I would have taken this action at several points along the way.

I also realized that the zoning code does, in fact, specifically allow “mobile homes” including RVs and camper trailers to be used to house persons employed at the farm, with a few conditions. I realized that the definition of “mobile home” which I had been shown at the time I was cited for a zoning violation was a highly restrictive definition from the Subdivision codes, not the broader definition from the zoning codes. I realized I could easily meet the sanitation conditions, based on the work I’d done with the Dg. Co. Health Dept. for the CUP, and that siting conditions were met by most of the locations I was asking for camping in the CUP.

I formally requested, with extensive citation of applicable regulations, a determination from DCZC on using non-permanent mobile homes for housing myself and farm volunteers, including a checklist documenting proof that Pinwheel is a bona fide “farm” as well as a memo from the Douglas County Health Dept. approving my sanitation arrangements. In response, I was granted a 90-day approval to use one particular camper to house myself and/or one “bona fide paid employee of the farm.”

I filed an appeal of this determination with the BZA ($100 non-refundable fee). It is scheduled to be heard (a Public Hearing) at 10 a.m. on April 18, 2011. The appeal requests a broadly construed interpretation of each phrase in the zoning code that applies to farm use of mobile homes. If the appeal is successful, I will defer the CUP until it seems like the broad interpretation is being appropriately honored by DCZC. Otherwise, I will continue to pursue the CUP.

LOOKING FORWARD: If I am allowed to use my permitted rights for  non-permanent mobile homes for persons employed at the farm, then I will be satisfied to wait and see what new camping and agritourism regulations are promulgated by the County in the next couple years, regarding tent camping. This regulatory development process is currently under way but as of this writing, draft regulations are not available to the public.

It is important to me, as well, that other Douglas County farmers–esp. small vegetable operations with high labor needs and many dedicated people eager to serve apprenticeships and internships–will be allowed to use their permitted right for RVs and campers to be used as flexible, sustainable housing for persons employed at their farms.

Are you tired after reading all this? Think how tired I am of living it all these years!

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