Exemption approved to allow farmer’s markets again on Walton County scenic corridors

THE WALTON COUNTY Board of County Commissioners recently approved an exemption to their Local State of Emergency declaration, allowing farmer’s markets to operate on the county’s scenic corridors

By DOTTY NIST

After being discontinued in March, farmer’s markets operating on Walton County’s scenic corridors will be allowed to resume.

The change is the result of a vote by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at its April 14 regular meeting.

The discontinuance of farmer’s markets on the scenic corridors has occurred on March 16 in conjunction with the BCC’s declaration of a local state of emergency (LSE) for the COVID-19 crisis. As part of the LSE, the officials had cancelled all outdoors events and beach activity ordinance special events permitted by the BCC and the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC). The LSE currently remains in force, and as of April 14 the outdoor events cancellation remained in effect.

The outdoor events cancellation had applied to farmer’s markets on the scenic corridors. These markets had been permitted by the county as temporary uses, subject to certain Walton County Land Development Code provisions and conditions.

Rules for scenic corridor farmer’s markets

All farmer’s market locations on the scenic corridors have been required to be approved in advance by the Walton County Planning Department, with applications to be submitted a month in advance of the opening of the market. The markets have been approved through the outdoor event review process, receiving an annual Farmer’s Market Permit.

Farmer’s market locations on the scenic corridors must be within commercial centers of approved development projects that contain event or common areas.

Walton County’s scenic corridors include U.S. 98 and U.S. 331 south of the bay, along with the Route 30 A Scenic Corridor. The latter corridor encompasses CR-30A, CR-393, CR-395, and, south of U.S. 98, also CR-83 and CR-283.

Current regulations for farmer’s markets on the scenic corridors have been in existence since 2018. While there had been farmer’s markets in other locations, prior to that time farmer’s markets had been specifically prohibited south of the bay along the U.S. 98/U.S. 331 Scenic Corridor. This was with the exception of short-term sales of seasonal agricultural products such as Christmas trees and pumpkins between Oct. 1 and Jan. 5, which had been permitted as a temporary use through a previously-existing permitting program.

The provisions put in place in 2018 had been aimed at both at regulating farmer’s markets on the scenic corridors and expanding healthy food opportunities in Walton County.

Farmer’s market exemption discussed and approved

At the request of representatives of 30A Farmers’ Markets, on April 14 the BCC discussed exempting farmer’s markets from the outdoor events cancellation that had accompanied the state of emergency declaration.

Larry Jones, county administrator, also requested that the commissioners consider the proposed exemption. He explained that, after a good deal of research, staff was of the opinion that farmer’s markets would be considered an essential activity.

The officials were provided with reference materials, among those Gov. Ron DeSantis’s April 1 “Safer at Home” executive order on essential services and activities during the COVID-19 emergency, and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security memorandum on essential critical infrastructure workers during the emergency.

Holly Holt, administrator for the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) in Walton County, told the commissioners that farmer’s markets were being held in other areas throughout the state, although the FDOH farmer’s markets held in recent years were “on hold.”

Diane Kolopanis, owner of 30A Farmers’ Markets, provided public comment as the commissioners considered the exemption. Before the outdoor events cancellation, Kolopanis had operated farmer’s markets in a number of locations in Walton County. A 30A Farmers’ Market location continues to operate in Niceville in Okaloosa County.

Kolopanis described safety measures in place at the Niceville market and that would be used at her Walton County farmer’s markets with approval of the exemption. These included requirements for vendors to wear gloves, placement of tents from six to 10 feet apart, not allowing customers to touch wares on the tables, and hand sanitizer stations.

Asked about masks, Kolopanis said that 70 percent of the vendors had been wearing masks and that she planned to make masks mandatory in the future. She was of the opinion that farmer’s markets offered more in the way of safety than grocery stores.

She discussed the possibility that Rosemary Beach and Grand Boulevard, where 30A Farmers’ Markets had previously been located, might want to wait until May 1 for the markets to begin. She also discussed the possibility of one or more alternative locations in Walton County, possibly using a drive-through arrangement.

Kolopanis brought up food supply chain problems in connection with the COVID-19 emergency and farmer’s markets’ ability to get food from farmers to consumers in an efficient manner. “Food is rotting in the field,” she reported.

District 4 Commissioner Trey Nick said he had gone to the 30A Farmers’ Market in Niceville. He was complimentary about the safety practices used and stated his support for the exemption.

A citizen, Mike Goodchild, also spoke in support.

The exemption was approved unanimously on a motion by District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper.