County’s code change proposals for farm events rankles some rural residents

Washougal resident says they feel like 'prisoner in own home' during loud, boisterous events on nearby farm

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A rural Washougal resident enjoys the view from his patio in an undated photo. (Contributed photo courtesy of Sherri Irish)

A Washougal resident is speaking out against potential Clark County code revisions that would allow farm owners to hold events on their properties.

Sherri Irish, who has lived in rural Washougal since 1987, fears the County’s code revisions could wreck the peace and quiet that drew her and many others to Clark County’s more rural areas.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” Irish said. “I live here because I love the outdoors, and I enjoy time on my patio. Noise is my biggest issue. You work hard all week, go out Friday evening to sit and relax, look forward to the weekend, and the music starts. It’s very frustrating. It is unfair. I know people want to make money, but it should never be at the expense of the quality of life of everyone else around them.”

Irish believes small farm owners should be allowed to pursue alternative revenue streams, but said she hopes the County will place restrictions on those revenue-generating events.

”There’s nothing agricultural about a concert. It’s a commercial-type thing,” Irish said. “I think that what they’re doing is spot-picking properties and turning rural property into commercial property parcel by parcel by allowing these events … I have nothing against cottage industries — art classes, painting wildflowers, photography, gardening, animal husbandry, all that stuff. That’s wonderful. They can make money off that. But intercom PA system amplifiers? That’s not agriculture, and it has no place in the countryside disturbing the peace of everyone else who also would like to have extra money but doesn’t want to sacrifice a way of life for it.”

During the two recent events held near Irish’s home, she said the noise was what caused the most disruption, causing wildlife to flee and her dog to “tuck his tail and run to the house.”

Irish and her husband would join the dog, she said, and close the windows to block out the noise.

“I start feeling like a prisoner in my own home because of a neighbor’s inconsiderate behavior,” Irish said.

Clark County formed the Rural Event Center Task Force (RECTF) earlier this year to examine whether its existing code for commercial events in rural areas — including weddings, birthday and graduation parties, receptions and other small gatherings — was in need of an overhaul.

RECTF member John Spencer, the owner of the Washougal-based Get-To Gather Farm, said he is grateful that the Clark County Council has recognized the need to help support local farmers.

“In return, we need to suggest code and processes that are flexible, clear and ensure the safety of guests and peace of the neighbors,” Spencer said. “It’s a pretty tall order.”

Irish, however, said she believes the county’s task force is “one-sided.”

“These meetings, in my opinion, are just free-for-alls,” she said, noting that RECTF members rarely talked about the code changes during their first two meetings in March and April. “The task force has not really discussed a lot of anything other than everybody goes around the table and complains about how much (the current codes have) cost them personally and what they want. I’ve never heard them discuss what is good for the public or anybody else. I’m expecting them to wrap it up without any further discussion — everything they’ve done so far tells me this whole thing is a fast-track push to change the code.”

Currently, Clark County does not allow property owners in R-5, R-10 and R-20 zones to operate as event centers without operating a winery as well. Small farm owners have, according to the County, advocated for additional revenue streams and to be included in the winery code regarding allowing event centers in rural residential zones.

“We are looking to enable agritourism and a more robust event hosting business sector in Clark County while protecting the livability of rural areas,” Spencer said. “Being careful in our recommended code revisions will help. For example, we can include noise-time restrictions, set-backs, and limit the event size to fit with the size of the property. However, just as it takes patrol officers to enforce the driving laws, we need effective code enforcement to enforce rules around rural events. That is beyond this committee’s scope.”

The task force is supposed to be comprised of three farm owners operating in the R-5, R-10 or R-20 zones; three winery owners operating in the R-5, R-10 or R-20 zones; three residents living in the R-5, R-10 or R-20 zones who are unaffiliated with farms and wineries; and three residents who participate in a formal organization or board that represents the residents or businesses of Clark County.

The actual composition of the RECTF differs from that description, according to Irish.

“There are not three people representing non-farm, non-agriculture,” she said. “(The website) says one of their duties is to share feedback collected from other citizens in each member’s representative category as well as their own, and the task force shall be a liaison between citizens and staff representing the interests and perspectives of stakeholder groups. Well, if the only people on that task force own wineries, cideries, and farms, and want to host the events, they’re not getting any rounded feedback. It’s all one-sided, which is a concern.”

Clark County solicited applications for the RECTF positions in December 2023. April Furth, Clark County’s community development director, said the County received one application from a person not affiliated with a farm or winery.

“That person only came to the first meeting, and I haven’t seen that person since,” Furth said, adding that the Clark County Council will still take public comments into consideration. “Any person that wants to provide feedback can submit their comments, and I will present those comments to the Council.”

Spencer said the task force was meant to be a smaller, more focused group that could “hash out a recommendation” for the County Council, which can then open the discussion to more public feedback.

“I believe public review and input will be crucial,” Spencer, who also is an elected member of the Port of Camas-Washougal Commission, said. “Like any group, the task force has limitations and perspectives that need to be balanced by outside review.”

Furth said the RECTF meetings have been operating as expected.

“They’ve been exactly what I said they were going to be,” Furth said, adding that she has presented the task force with four code-change options that range from “very restrictive to no changes at all.”

Furth said she does not believe the RECTF conversations have been one-sided, but could see why some people — including Irish — might believe they are.

“I mean, of course, the task force members are winery owners and farm owners and (representatives from) organizations, so I would see why (people would) might feel that way,” Furth said.

Spencer, who launched his farm during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, understands the challenges of trying to make it in Clark County as a small farmer owner. He said the county’s existing code relating to events on farms and agricultural lands is “very confusing and nonsensical.”

“I can run my pumpkin patch all season long with hundreds of people coming and going every day, yet I can’t currently advertise the use of my land as a wedding venue on weekends,” he said. “But then I can get temporary permits to hold individual weddings, just so long as I don’t advertise? I don’t believe there is a defined limit on the number of temporary permits I can obtain, but if I hold too many, then I am considered to be (the owner of) an ‘event venue’ and am not allowed to host any weddings at all. Birthday parties, retreats, or other special events are even more vague.”

Clark County Council Chair Gary Medvigy said during an August 2023 Council workshop that the potential code changes are “all about equities and allowing small farms and property owners to excel out in the community, to take advantage of tourism and opportunity for small businesses.”

Medvigy added that county leaders “just have to be careful of how wide we open that aperture so that we don’t turn our rural area into a commercial area.”

In 2019, Mitch Nickolds, then acting as Clark County’s community development director, oversaw a similar rural event task force to discuss code changes and collect feedback. His efforts resulted in a “50-50 tie of people for and against the code changes to the R-5, R-10 and R-20 zones,” according to the County.

Residents brought up a variety of potential issues, including “fire safety … noise, traffic, light nuisance, residents being surrounded by event centers (and) business competition,” and County officials held off on moving forward with code changes.

“As I understand it, a similar effort failed several years ago in part because the views were too diverse and the public process was too cumbersome,” Spencer said.

More recently, Furth said, there have been a lot of public requests to revisit the code changes.

“I think that when the rural event center research work was done before, I don’t know if the end result of that was brought back to the Council,” Furth said. “The Council might have felt unresolved as far as that went. And I don’t know if it was because of timing, because it was the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, or a change of Council (members) at the time. I actually don’t know why, but I think that some of the councilors felt unresolved.”

Irish, who said she is worried about potential conflict of interests on the current Clark County Council, noted that Councilmember Sue Marshall also owns and operates a fourth-generation family farm in Ridgefield.

“She was at the rural task force meeting on April 18 and engaged in verbal dialogue with the task force members, which I think is unethical,” Irish said of Marshall. “She should not be there at all, in my opinion, because she (could be) using her position to influence them. If the Council votes on this, she should recuse herself from the vote, in my opinion.”

Marshall said there is no conflict of interest as the farm she owns would not qualify for potential code revisions.

“The committee is only addressing land that is zoned rural,” Marshall said. “Our farm is (zoned) AG-20. We would not be eligible for whatever the rural event committee might recommend. And we are busy enough with our farming operations to host events.”

Irish also expressed concerns that the County’s code enforcement staff does not have enough employees to accommodate the increased number of calls that the code changes may cause.

Furth said this is an issue that is being discussed at the county level.

“A lot of the conversation that I bring up is, ‘I can’t do that because we can’t regulate it,’” Furth said, adding that her department employs three code-enforcement officers, none of whom currently work on the weekends. “There’s discussion about building code and fire code and noise and traffic. A lot of times when something gets brought up, I say, ‘We won’t be able to regulate that. We don’t have the people, we don’t have the resources.’ One of the main things I told them from the very beginning is, ‘We need to look at this, but we need to look at this with a reality lens so that they are aware of what we can and cannot regulate.’”

The RECTF plans to meet at 5 p.m. Thursday, June 20, and 5 p.m. Thursday, July 19, at the Public Safety Complex, 505 N.W. 179th St., Ridgefield. The meetings are open to the public and accessible via Microsoft Teams.

For more information, visit To provide feedback for task force members to take into consideration, email comments to