Agri-tourism expansion at East Bethel farm

Minnesota Farm Fresh, a four-generation, 72-acre produce farm along the east side of Highway 65 north of Klondike Drive NE, will soon be expanding into agritourism, providing a new list of family-friendly attractions in East Bethel.

Agritourism is defined as “an agriculturally based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch.”

The farm is owned by Bruce and Sharon Johnson and currently focuses on naturally grown fruits and vegetables for consumers. The Johnsons are planning to offer “u-pick” strawberries and raspberries, a pumpkin patch, a children’s corn maze and other activities in 2014.

Longer-range plans include renting out space for weddings, renovating an existing barn into a small retail area to sell products and to offer gardening, cooking, and food preservation classes. The Johnsons hope to offer these activities in 2015.

The East Bethel City Council Dec. 4 approved the Johnsons’ request for an interim use permit for the business, which was necessary because the proposed business additions are not allowed under the property’s existing R2 residential zoning classification.

Councilmember Bob DeRoche had initially made a motion to table the decision on the IUP until a council work session. He said the city has a limited amount of space on Highway 65 that can be developed, and the city needs businesses that will have enough connections [to municipal utilities] to help pay for the project. .

It would set a bad precedent to simply change the zoning laid out in the city’s comprehensive plan “every time something comes up, he said.

DeRoche also expressed concerns about what would happen if the property owner put a lot of money into a business during the interim use permit, and the city later determined that the business was not a good fit there with its comprehensive plan.

The council voted 3-2 against tabling the decision, with Councilmember Tom Ronning joining DeRoche in voting to table.

According to a memo to councilmembers, the East Bethel Planning Commission had found that the residential zoning classification does not make sense because the property has been used for agriculture and is also in an area designated as a significant natural environment overlay district. The properties immediately to the north and south of the Johnsons are zoned highway commercial. The planning commission voted unanimously on Nov. 26 to recommend approval of the IUP.

The IUP is granted for two years and must be renewed after that time. The permit will expire when the property is sold or if the property owners do not comply with IUP conditions, which include that they must provide access and parking from Klondike Avenue NE, with no customer parking on the street.