Neighbor opposes proposal to farm land close to houses

It's a little like déjá vu for Roger Lenk of Pasco and some other neighbors of a vacant property near Faith Assembly Christian Center that became the epicenter of a controversy almost two years ago.

Phil and Marissa Schmitt of Pasco would like to farm the property and sell vegetables grown there at local farmers markets.

They have applied for a city special permit that would allow them to farm the 18-acre piece of land on the 2100 block of Road 72.

It's the same property where the Schmitts proposed opening a corn maze in fall 2009. The proposal drew opposition from almost 40 neighbors, who told the city that they didn't want a corn maze there, citing concerns about traffic, noise and light pollution.

The city council ended up denying a special permit in December 2009, noting concerns about traffic.

But Marissa Schmitt said the family no longer wants to put a corn maze there.

Instead, they want to grow corn and vegetables on land that traditionally has been farmed, she said.

Their young sons picked and sold sweet corn that the Schmitts grew on a different property last year, she said.

Marissa Schmitt said they still would like to open a corn maze, but haven't found a suitable location. The family operated a corn maze in Franklin County for about 12 years before trying to open one near Faith Assembly.

Pasco requires a special permit for farming operations within 1,000 feet of a home, residential subdivision or residential zone, said city planner David McDonald. The area is zoned residential.

Phil Schmitt said they are applying for the special permit now, hoping the permit process will be completed before May, which is the earliest they would start planting. Harvest for sweet corn and various vegetables would be between August and October.

The Schmitts plan to sell the produce at the Pasco and Richland farmers markets, as well as through Consumer Support Agriculture, a program in which farmers sell directly to families and deliver fresh produce weekly. Phil Schmitt said the family hasn't tried that before.

Some of the same neighbors who opposed the corn maze are concerned about the new proposal, Lenk said. They feel the project will be objectionable and a nuisance.

Lenk said that when the city looked at the issue last time, it found the property wasn't a good fit for a farm.

The vacant land is in a residential area with homes on half-acre lots and larger, he said.

Lenk said that he is concerned with the proposal based on his previous experience with the Schmitts.

After the special permit for the corn maze was denied, Lenk said farm equipment and corn stalks were left on the property for about a year.

McDonald estimated it took the Schmitts several months to finish removing equipment.

Some local property owners have small-scale organic farms and had issues with pesticides and fertilizer use when the corn maze was being grown, Lenk said.

Some claimed the Schmitts were farming the land illegally in 2009. But Marissa Schmitt said they didn't realize they needed a permit to farm the property to grow corn for a corn maze. Other properties they have custom farmed all were in Franklin County, and no special permit was needed, she said.

Lenk also thinks the city isn't following its hearing process correctly. He said the city failed to send notification to property owners within 1,000-foot radius of the proposed farm, and instead used a 300-foot radius that excludes him and other affected neighbors.

But McDonald said the city did use the 1,000-foot radius, as required for agricultural operations.

The Pasco Planning Commission has set a public hearing on the project at 7 p.m. Feb. 17 that will be the only chance for public comment, and then the commission will make a recommendation to the city council, which has the final say.