Surf City Farm appeals Pender County claiming it’s not an ‘authentic’ farm

It’s been just over a year since Sean and Shari Donahue opened Surf City Farm in the Topsail area of ​​Pender County, but they’re facing challenges from people who say it’s not a real farm.

The couple sought an appeal of an administrative decision by county officials, who said selling fruits and vegetables grown on other farms was not considered bona fide farming, despite the rules of the Condition presented by owners. Pender’s Zoning Board of Adjustments reviewed the case in a meeting Wednesday and supported the county in its decision.

The Donahues believe the actions were prompted by complaints from a few nearby residents, who they believe were going to complain regardless.

“There’s been a lot of claims that we’re not a farm, and we’re not farming, and we just have a few raised beds,” Shari said. “Yes, next to the barn there are some raised flower beds, which we actually added.”

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The actual growth is not visible from the barn and behind their home, the owners said. Shari said photos were provided to council members.

Sean and Shari Donahue started Surf City Farm after spending time in the restaurant business, which struggled due to Hurricane Florence in September 2018. The idea for the farm and market business was followed, which includes nearly 5 acres including a residential house, greenhouse and agricultural production. Another 5.71 acres is undeveloped woodland reserved for future planting of soil-based produce and flowers.

“We have a lot of land in production,” she said. “We have greenhouses with hydroponics (cultivation without soil, using water-based materials) at the moment.”

Sean said many growth projects have been put on hold due to the situation.

“I can’t keep investing money, until I know how everything was going to turn out,” he said.

He added that he is experimenting with other crops such as watermelons and pumpkins hydroponically, in addition to plans to grow flowers such as mums and other rosemary bushes.

“It’s just difficult right now,” he said. “There is this impression that to be a farm, you have to have a hundred acres and if you don’t see the corn or you don’t see anything. But when you have a small property like ours, a large space is is a bonus and a large space is a bonus. Of the three small greenhouses that we actually made and installed, there was a considerable amount of plans in there with the field and everything.

What is a farm?

Surf City Farms received a Conditional Farmer Exemption from the North Carolina Department of Revenue in 2019, which was followed by a Good Faith Farm Determination issued by the county’s Department of Planning and Community Development , based on a status letter sent to Sean. This documented Surf City Farms’ exemption from county zoning regulations for bona fide agricultural purposes.

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In a report submitted to the zoning board, Pender staffers said activities that fall outside of bona fide agricultural purposes are subject to county zoning regulations and were consistent during that time.

In June and July 2021, the county’s planning department received three business complaints, leading the county to request a full description of how the business operated. Officials said he said Surf City Farm orders produce in bulk once a week to resell to Fresh Point, a division of Sysco Foods. Officials also mentioned that products from other farms are also available.

After more communication between company, state, and county officials, planning director Travis Henley determined that selling produce from outside sources did not meet the standards of a farm. good faith under state law. 160D-903 and 106-581.1 concerning agriculture, while mentioning that the products sold on the farm must be sold on site.

In a letter presented to officials, they said Pender County was a “complaint-driven” law enforcement department, before requesting a list of all bona fide farms in the area.

“Since Pender is once again a ‘complaint-driven’ agency, all other farms in Pender County are free to operate under their interpretation of the law and buy/sell produce grown by others as they see fit. “, said the Donahues. “Surf City Farm is subject to fines if it operates as such.”

Although complaints were filed by a few residents, Surf City provided a letter of support from the nearby Marci Village Homeowners Association. Shari said 16 people had signed their names in the past three days, leading up to the community appeal hearing between NC 210 and NC 50.

“Our HOA had a meeting regarding the feelings of the residents on the farm and its location, the business they conduct, the inbound traffic that has occurred, and the general feelings of the residents on Surf City Farm,” the president said. by HOA, Christina Merklin. “Residents present at this meeting expressed no complaints about the farm, its operations or the small influx of traffic that had occurred.

“Residents, on the other hand, received numerous complaints about the possible closure of the farm and felt that the farm was being unfairly denounced by a single resident of our community and two residents of Northern Escape Way,” Merklin added. . “Residents of Marcil Village have offered their support to Surf City Farm in any way that may be helpful to them in maintaining their business.”

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On behalf of the department, Henley acknowledged that Surf City Farm grows crops in soil and hydroponically on the site at 101 Northern Escape Way in Hampstead, in addition to creating and selling products made from crops. grown on site, meets bonafide farm status. But crops brought to the farm do not fall into that category, according to state law, and violate a county ordinance.

To advance

Shari said Surf City Farm plans to continue operations under new arrangements for building spaces and selling products related to the state’s Roadside Certified Farmers Market program. A request was sent by the Donahues to participate, which allows sales from other North Carolina farmers to be 49%.

“Although our building is larger than 1,000 square feet, we can make adjustments to do this either with another structure on the property or just outside the building,” Shari said of the regulations.

Surf City Farm has not sold products for four months. They currently allow the public to rent space on the site for events and special occasions.

They don’t know if they will appeal to a higher court, but for now Shari and Sean wonder if similar farming and market businesses will know the rules about growing produce from other places. Shari said they should make decisions and do business within what the law allows them to do.

“Like my wife said, I’m not going anywhere,” Sean said.

One of the ideas for the is picking blueberries and raspberries for visitors, as well as growing more stuff.

“Just because a door is closed right now doesn’t mean we’re done,” he said. “It just means we’re going to pivot. I’m not going to lie, it set us back a bit for the last growing season. It is what it is, and we’re just going to move on.”

Journalist Chase Jordan can be reached at [email protected]

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