Steamboat Springs Farmer John Weibel will get his chance Jan. 29 to make his case to the Routt County Board of Commissioners that his new cheese-making facility is an agricultural building and should not be held up to standards for commercial buildings by the Routt County Regional Building Department.
Weibel milks about a dozen Guernsey and brown Swiss dairy cows in the summer at his Moonhill Dairy on Routt County Road 52E in the lower Elk River Valley. Now, he wants to begin making modest amounts of cheese in a new shed attached to his 1930s-era barn. But Weibel is chafing at being required by the Routt County Building Department to build a firewall between his barn, where the cows are milked, and the cheese shed, where the milk would be processed.
County Commissioner Steve Ivancie said Wednesday that he and his fellow commissioners heard Weibel’s concerns Tuesday during a public comment period and directed staff to put him on their agenda. County Manager Tom Sullivan said that the time of Weibel’s Jan. 29 hearing has not been set and that he would gather information from county department leaders in advance of the formal discussion.
Weibel said Wednesday that he thinks in Routt County — where many thousands of dollars in public funds are being used to preserve the rural landscape of farms and ranches through the purchase of development rights program — government officials should do more to encourage production of agricultural products locally.
“It is my belief that the best way to keep this open space from development is through a vibrant agricultural component,” Weibel wrote in a letter he read to the commissioners.
“There isn’t any agricultural infrastructure to speak of left in the county,” Weibel said later in the week. “The biggest thing you could do is allow people to process their produce on the farm.”
Building Department official Carl Dunham said he has made concessions intended to make it easier for Weibel to comply with the portion of the International Building Code, to which the county adheres, requiring the separation of the commercial cheese processing plant from the dairy barn. Instead of requiring a masonry wall, he is willing to accept a firewall of lumber and drywall.
“We have been working very closely with Mr. Weibel’s engineer with regard to how to do a food-production facility interconnected to an agricultural building and make the details (the) least restrictive as they possibly can be,” Dunham said. “Mr. Weibel doesn’t feel he needs to do anything. We live in a community. It’s appropriate to have zoning (regulations) and building codes. It’s not a free-for-all.”
Weibel said his new cheese shed comprises about 450 square feet and has a concrete floor with a drain and stainless steel interior walls. He has a conditional-use permit from the county to make cheese at his farm but said he does not want to invest too heavily in the plant because he views it as an interim step where he will refine his cheese-making process before hopefully taking a bigger step to make cheese in a facility within Steamboat city limits. There, he hopes, visitors someday could observe the cheese-making process and purchase local cheese with the logo of his Moonhill Dairy.
Sullivan said that the county has been working with Weibel on the details of his cheese-producing plant since June 2012 and that he understands Dunham’s position.
“That’s a big concession Carl’s already made. This is a pretty reasonable, flexible accommodation,” Sullivan said. “If (Weibel) wasn’t pasteurizing the milk, it would be a different story.”
Asked about the cost of building the firewall, Weibel did not give a direct answer but said he could have satisfied Colorado Department of Health and Environment standards for food producing facilities more economically.
“I talked with the CDPHE, and they said I could process (the milk into cheese) in a trailer,” Weibel said. “If I can process it in a trailer, what does it matter if there’s a firewall in between Room A and B that has no increased risk of fire?”
Weibel said the issue of whether food-processing facilities on working farms and ranches are commercial buildings goes beyond his dairy and cheese operation. He is one of five or six local potato growers, he said, who could sell to local restaurants if they had a more efficient way to wash the spuds.
“In order to help revive a more diverse and vibrant agricultural sector in the region, I believe it would be helpful if the county would reconsider some of the rules designed elsewhere and (being) implemented in Routt County,” he wrote in his letter.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com