Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Some proposed changes to Tuolumne County's zoning laws could open up more business opportunities for local farms.

The county Community Resources Agency has drafted possible changes to the zoning ordinance that officials say are meant to increase agritourism opportunities. The county Board of Supervisors reviewed the draft on Tuesday and allowed the proposal to move forward. There are still multiple steps before any changes become official.

The new rules would relax restrictions on some ag-land uses, allowing now-forbidden events, activities and attractions on farms.

An abbreviation of agricultural tourism, agritourism usually refers to commercial operations that take place on working farms. The idea is to boost the economy by expanding tourist opportunities on local farmland.

Some Tuolumne County leaders think there is untapped potential.

Mike Laird, deputy director at the Community Resources Agency, said thecounty Board of Supervisors in 2011 identified farm tourism as a way to stimulate the economy and set it as a priority for a committee dedicated to agricultural policies.

"That's what sort of got it going," Laird said.

According to documents from Tuesday's meeting, agritourism events could include commercial events like weddings, entertainment and lawn parties; activities like workshops, craft demonstrations and petting zoos; overnight stays like bed and breakfasts and guest ranches; and recreational activities like horseback riding and cattle drives.

Currently, some activities are allowed on local farms like picnicking, hiking, wagon rides, fishing and children's camps. Some agricultural operations can also hold events if they complement the farming activities that already take place.

There are already a handful of local agritourism operations, including Indigeny Reserve, which sells hard apple cider on its apple ranch, and Cover's Apple Ranch, which has a restaurant/store and some children's attractions.

Laird said the biggest questions over allowing new uses on agricultural land revolve around commercial events like weddings. The zoning changes have already been discussed for months at various planning committees, and Laird said neighbors have talked about noise and traffic increasing if nearby farms start holding these events.

"We know that the neighbors are going to be concerned about some of those things," he said, calling the process a "balancing act."

Because such changes would affect nearby properties, the county will have to develop an environmental review that would detail the policy changes and their environmental effects, and identify ways to minimize those effects. Once that's done, the proposal would be subject to public hearings at multiple planning commissions.

Agritourism is a growing industry in California, according to a survey conducted by the University of California Small Farm Program through the UC Cooperative Extension. Results from a survey conducted by the extension between 2002 and 2008 and published last year show that more than 2.4 million people in California participated in agritourism in 2008, and almost 700 farms reported $35 million in economic activity from tourism.

According to the extension research, other foothill counties have included farmers and ranchers in the planning process for such operations and have streamlined the permit system to allow such activities.