Steamboat Springs Small-scale dairy farmer John Weibel didn’t get the answers he was seeking from the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, but he did get a promise that county officials will take a step back this year and look at how they manage the growing interest in promoting agricultural-based tourism here.
Weibel wants to begin making cheese with raw milk from about a dozen cows he milks during the summer on his ranch on Routt County Road 52E in the lower Elk River Valley. And he wants to get started in a 300-square-foot cheese room he built adjacent to his almost 80-year-old barn.
However, as he left the Commissioners Hearing Room on Tuesday, he said that in order to meet his goal of economically making cheese this summer, he’d probably purchase a trailer and make cheese in it rather than meeting county regulations placed on his new cheese room.
His beef with the county is its insistence that he must live up to the building code, which requires a firewall be built between commercial facilities and adjoining buildings being used for different purposes.
“It would be nice to expedite the process if someone wanted to milk 20 cows and make artisanal cheese” they could, Weibel told the commissioners.
“I can understand in an urban situation why you would need separation (in the form of a firewall). The building codes are written for large cities. That’s where we come to you and see how you can revise these codes,” he said.
Weibel already has a conditional-use permit from the county allowing him to make cheese on his ranch, but he objects to that process, too, contending that making small-batch cheese next door to his milking shed is an agricultural process and not a commercial food production process, as the county insists it is.
All three commissioners backed up Routt County Building Department official Carl Dunham in his enforcement of the International Building Code.
“The building permit part of it seems pretty black and white to me,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said. “I’m very supportive of Carl based on the rules and regs of the building code.”
Commissioner Steve Ivancie noted that Dunham showed some flexibility in Weibel’s case, allowing him to build a firewall of lumber and drywall rather than the more typical cinderblock wall. And he added that the building code was written to protect lives in case of a fire.
“I don’t have the option of choosing what rules and codes I’m going to enforce,” Ivancie said. “The issue of safety, general welfare and public health is something I take very seriously. I think it’s a small price to pay.”
Weibel estimates that by the time he had a wall designed, built and electrical components installed, it would cost him $5,000 to $10,000. He reasons that he could purchase the trailer for the price of building the wall and get most of his money back out of it with a later sale when he’s ready to move cheese production into a permanent facility.
Marsha Daughenbaugh, executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance, reminded the commissioners that encouraging small-scale food production in the valley could diversify and broaden the agriculture sector of the local economy.
“I think we have some opportunity here for some economic development,” Daughenbaugh said.
Commissioner Doug Monger said that in his mind, processing milk to make cheese is clearly a commercial enterprise, but he also said he thinks the time is right for the county to have a broader discussion about how it regulates on-farm food production in the context of agricultural tourism.
He asked Steamboat Springs Planning Director Chad Phillips to include CSU Extension agent Todd Hagenbuch in future meetings to look at the subject and said it is possible the county will revisit pieces of its 2003 master plan in the process.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com