Submitted photo: Visitors enjoyed Family Night on the Farm at the Sobeck Brothers Farms in 2018. This year the Aldinger Family Dairy will host the event on June 26.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona Area Chamber of Commerce officials said the future of its annual Family Night on the Farm event is brighter after this Tuesday, when the Winona County Board cut through red tape affecting the event. Every summer for the past 40-plus years, Family Night on the Farm has given hundreds of local children and adults a chance to see where food comes from, and the county has approved the event with minimal regulation, but recently, county staff determined the event needed to go through extensive permitting requirements, including $550 in permit fees, a public hearing, and votes by both the Planning Commission and County Board. After Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt said that regulatory “rigamarole” was making it hard for the chamber to find farmers willing to host the event, the County Board waived a portion of the permit requirements last month, and this week permanently did away with the rest.
This is a volunteer-led event, Schmidt said. “When you put up extra barriers it makes it that much harder for volunteers to jump through those hoops,” she added.
The “rigamarole” Schmidt was concerned about was the county’s large gathering ordinance, which requires events hosting more than 500 people to meet a laundry list of health and safety requirements, get two different kinds of permits including a conditional use permit (CUP), and go through an often two-month-long public hearing and approval process. Although Family Night on the Farm seemingly meets the written definition of a large gathering under county ordinances, for years, county staff did not hold the longstanding event to all of those requirements. Recently, under new leadership, the county’s planning department staff determined the event met the definition of a large gathering and needed to meet the requirements of the large gathering ordinance. Event organizers were taken aback and asked the County Board for help.
The large gathering ordinance was written in response to a rural Woodstock-like concert in the 2000s and never intended to apply to Family Night on the Farm, Winona County Board member Marcia Ward said. Other events, including the Winona County Fair and Pickwick Mills Days, are exempt from the requirements of the large gathering ordinance and Family Night on the Farm should be, too, Ward argued. The County Board voted last month to waive this year’s CUP requirement, and on Tuesday, the board amended the large gathering ordinance to add Family Night on the Farm to the list of events exempted from the ordinance’s requirements.
“Family Night on the Farm has the extensive track record that precedes this ordinance by 20 years or more,” Winona County Board member Steve Jacob said. “We’ll continue to follow, as we always have, good event management practices that protect both the farm family, and frankly, the Chamber of Commerce, and the health and safety of the families attending the event,” Schmidt stated. “I feel we run a very responsible event,” Family Night on the Farm Planning Committee member Kyle Rupprecht said. “As Della said, we’ve got the reputation of the chamber and the farms on the line.”
Before the vote, County Board members Chris Meyer and Marie Kovecsi questioned whether the county would be exposing itself to any legal liability or neglecting its duty to protect public safety by waiving the permit requirements. Many counties do not have any large gathering ordinances, county administrator Ken Fritz responded. “From a legal perspective, the county doesn’t have to do that,” he added. Meyer and Kovecsi ultimately voted with the rest of the board in favor of exempting Family Night on the Farm from the large gathering ordinance.
The County Board also voted unanimously to direct county staff to review the large gathering ordinance and consider revising its rules for all events. “It’s not a burning issue, but this ordinance needs to be updated. It’s cumbersome. It’s clunky. It doesn’t fit,” Ward said.
It turns out that the big, rural music festivals Ward said inspired the ordinance are rare. In recent years, there have been no applications for CUPs for large gatherings. Referring to the ordinance, Ward asked, “Do we even really need it?”