The cold, snowy wind blowing across Green Bluff on Wednesday was about as far as you could get from wedded bliss on a warm summer night.
Cold weather or not, Spokane’s three county commissioners marched through the snow on a special fact-finding mission.
They wanted to see for themselves what’s causing an uproar on Green Bluff over the growing number of wedding venues, wineries and other commercial endeavors.
They stopped to talk with owners of two wedding venues, visited a more traditional farm and drove by four other locations.
Commissioners are considering changes that would be more appropriate for wedding businesses under existing special event zoning.
They’re also trying to work with fire officials to ease the requirements on such businesses to store water.
Outdoor weddings typically attract 50 to 75 guests for couples who want to enjoy their special day in the country, said JoAnne Smatlan, owner of High Country Orchard, 8518 E. Green Bluff Road.
“They come to the country to be outside,” said Teri Story, wedding facility coordinator at High Country.
Smatlan and her husband, Joe, have built a small pavilion enclosed by windows and glass doors. It’s far enough off Green Bluff Road to create a feeling of seclusion among the fruit trees. Weddings are performed under a small pergola on a lawn, and guests gather in the pavilion.
The event business is near the orchard store. Both are trying to comply with 2002 zoning rules governing on-site sales and seasonal events on Green Bluff.
One of those rules is that event businesses have to be engaged in agriculture, officials said. Another is that the event season runs from mid-June through October and is limited to four days a week.
But facilities used for indoor public gatherings or production fall under stricter provisions of the fire code requiring a large flow of water in case of fire.
Smatlan told commissioners and county building officials that she would be willing to take doors off her pavilion or put up a temporary tent to comply with those requirements.
“The ceremony is always outside,” she said.
Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said Green Bluff owners set the stage for event centers and other operations by arguing to open the prairie to direct sales and limited commercial operations starting in 2002.
“This is what they wanted to be,” she said.
Now, some residents complain about noise, traffic, development and the loss of prime agricultural land.
Derrick Hansen at Hansen’s Orchard told commissioners, “These are resource lands. We do not want to lose them.”
He said the event centers have become “an absolute nuisance in the summer.”
Commissioner Todd Mielke said he is working with lawmakers and fire officials to ensure that water flow rules meet a standard recognized by the Legislature as appropriate for rural areas.
Whitworth Water District provides residential water to Green Bluff, but water consumption has exceeded an agreement between the district and Green Bluff residents, Mielke said.
Green Bluff is within Spokane County Fire District 4. Fire Chief Randy Johnson said the district’s fire rating, which affects insurance rates, may be at stake as commercial uses expand and fire risk goes up.
Water availability rules could also affect plans by two wineries, Townshend Cellar and Trezzi Farm, as well as Big Barn brewery, to achieve their plans for operations on the bluff.
Townshend Cellar and Trezzi Farm both operate under residential building permits, county officials said.
Owner Don Townshend is currently in discussion with the county building department over the use of his facility, said Building Director Randy Vissia.
Mielke and O’Quinn said wineries are being built across Walla Walla, Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties under the same state fire code.
“It’s an economic driver,” O’Quinn said. “We don’t want everyone going to Walla Walla.”