Sunni Cannon looks out from her backyard on a panoramic view of fields and mountains to the north of Green Bluff.
It’s the perfect place for an outdoor wedding.
But the well-landscaped event center that she and her husband, Kurt, have developed is under threat because it violates Spokane County zoning rules.
Cannon operates one of a half-dozen facilities on Green Bluff available to the public for special events.
“I don’t think anyone is trying to change what Green Bluff is,” said Cannon, of 7606 E. Green Bluff Road. “It’s a destination area.”
Spokane County commissioners this month are expected to consider new rules to make event centers legal on small farms.
Last week, the Planning Commission unanimously opposed changing the zoning code to allow event centers unless restrictions are placed on hours of operation, noise, parking, traffic control, lighting and frequency of events.
Currently, commercial activities must follow rules set in 2002 that allow direct sales of farm produce to consumers and seasonal harvest events on Fridays through Mondays, June through October.
The rules are intended to increase the viability of small farms by giving owners more commercial opportunities. Event centers have operated within that context, even though they are not strictly legal, county officials said.
The county is avoiding strict enforcement over event centers until a decision is made on proposed changes, Planning Director John Pederson said.
The proposal before county commissioners would allow event centers on small farms – officially called small-tract agricultural zones – countywide, not just on Green Bluff. In addition, hours of operation would be extended to 10 p.m. from 6 p.m. to accommodate evening events.
Some residents of Green Bluff in northeast Spokane County are concerned about the way event activities are displacing farm-oriented sales.
Rod and Karen Hansen, along with their son, Derrick, operate Hansen’s Orchard, which is located on Green Bluff Road a short distance from two event centers. They have 10 acres of Christmas trees and 10 acres of orchards, plus berries and a few other crops.
During harvest season, they sell their own cider, including a popular mix of apple and grape juices, as well as caramel apples, jams and other products.
Karen Hansen said running a farm is hard work and when evening comes she is ready for peace and quiet. But then the party starts at one of the event centers nearby. “It’s loud,” she said.
Hansen said she fears that if the county allows event centers to operate with greater leeway, more businesses will pop up in a place that ought to be preserved for farm production.
“You’ve got to protect that dirt,” she said.
Judy Crowder, another Green Bluff property owner arguing for restrictions on event centers, said, “Anybody could have these event centers in their homes if they wanted to.”
She said more reasonable closing times and noise restrictions are needed.
Other concerns voiced include fire protection, water supply and wastewater pollution.
But allowing event centers appears to have support among the members of the Green Bluff Direct Marketing Association. A majority of the members recently voted to support zoning rules to allow them, members said.
But many people, including members of the marketing association, believe that rules should be established to control noise, traffic on the narrow county roads, parking availability and alcohol consumption.
Todd Beck, at Beck’s Harvest House, said hosting more commercial activities during harvest season has saved his family’s farm, which includes 25 acres of orchard and nine acres of corn. Harvest House has had some weddings, but not on a regular basis.
It’s not unusual to see a half-hour line at Harvest House to purchase a bag of freshly fried pumpkin donuts on busy weekends during October – prime time on Green Bluff.
He said the limited commercial activity “is what has allowed Green Bluff to retain its destination spot.”
In fact, Green Bluff is unique in the Pacific Northwest when it comes to having a large collection of small farms that cater to a big urban population within a half-hour’s drive. Thousands of people make the trip every year. For many, it’s family tradition.
Hay rides, pumpkin picking, corn mazes, crafts booths and food are found at various locations.
The season kicks off this month when strawberries start ripening in the second half of June through early July. Cherries will be available in mid-July and then peaches by mid-August. Apples ripen in the fall. Garden produce is also widely available in season.
Beck said Green Bluff “is an asset for all the people of Spokane” as well as the many out-of-town visitors who make their way up the bluff each year.
“The wedding thing to me is just another step” in the evolution of Green Bluff, Beck said.
“The idea of a country wedding goes back forever,” he said. “I had my wedding here 15 years ago.”
Cannon, who has 10 events scheduled this year starting with a wedding Saturday, requires her clients to use her sound system. She monitors alcohol consumption and insists that anyone showing signs of intoxication not get behind the wheel.
But she has stopped booking additional events until the zoning debate is settled, she said. She pointed out that the wedding business creates jobs and is good for the local economy.
“I would like to see some compromise,” she said.