The greenhouse effect — it’s not what you’re thinking | SteamboatToday.com

The greenhouse effect — it’s not what you’re thinking

The growing interest in locally grown food here has prompted county officials to take a fresh look at regulations pertaining to greenhouses.

— The Routt County Board of Commissioners re-engaged an ongoing conversation Monday, inspired by the locavore movement here and centered on the topic of what constitutes agriculture.

This time, commissioners discussed whether small greenhouses should receive the stature enjoyed by traditional ranch structures, such as hay and tractor sheds, which excuse their owners from obtaining building permits.

"As I understand, a greenhouse hasn't been considered part of the ag exemption in the past," chief building official Ben Grush said. "The greenhouse community has a desire to expand, and there's a gray area between a truly commercial (greenhouse) and those who want to grow some plants to sell," produce.

In Routt County, residents are entitled to a 120-square-foot greenhouse as an accessory unit. Larger structures require building permit fees. The size limitation was modeled on the typical store-bought garden shed, planning director Chad Phillips said. Grush said he has an open mind toward a modest enlargement on that size limit.

Commissioner Doug Monger said providing a size limit is desirable, but added county government may need to reach out to the community to determine how small a greenhouse can be and still be practical for people interested in small-scale food production.

"It might seem arbitrary, the number we pick, but the clearer we can make it," the better, Monger said. "We need somebody to tell us."

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Community Agriculture Alliance Executive Director Marsha Daughenbaugh said Monday that the Northwest Colorado Food Coalition, comprising local health officials, ag producers from across the county and Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, is considering that question and others.

Colorado State University Extension Agent Karen Massey said the latest conversation by county officials is part of a sincere effort on their part to take some of the confusion out of the regulatory process for the growing number of people who are driven to engage in small-scale food growing.

"What came out of that was a real desire to make it easier for people to navigate the regulatory environment," Massey said. "The average person has no idea of these constraints. I think we can iron it out for them."

The new emphasis on greenhouses, Massey said, stems from a growing awareness that in Routt County's climate a season-extender is a great help in producing enough produce to share or sell with others. That means a greenhouse.

When different county officials from the assessor to planning, building and environmental health personnel gathered to tackle the subject of enabling larger greenhouses, all of them looked at the subject through different lenses, Massey said. The group also realized that limitations on food production — water use and food safety for example — are not always controlled at the local level.

"I think we all sat around and were mesmerized at how differently each of us interprets somebody's project," Massey said.

As a result, all of the government officials agreed they would meet as a group with new small-scale operators to answer their questions. But first, those operators will be asked to fill out a questionnaire to clarify what their desires and challenges are.

Daughenbaugh said the questionnaire requires beginning ag producers to think through their business plans. And the group meetings among would-be producers and county officials help to reduce confusion by ensuring people are hearing consistent messages from each other in one place at one time.

Massey said CSU Extension's role is one of education and not regulation.

"We just want to make it easier for people," she said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1