Ligonier working on provision for 'agritourism'

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The search for a wedding reception venue ended abruptly for Nicole Lessmann.

"She said, 'No, I don't have to look anymore. This is what I want,' " recalled her mother, Amy Lessmann of Forest Hills.

The future bride decided her December celebration would be at Foxley Farm in Ligonier Township, a choice her mother fully supports.

"We love this place. It's beautiful. It will be a memorable reception," Amy Lessmann said last week as she visited Foxley to work on the arrangements.

Helping with the process was Maggie Nied, who owns the farm with her husband, P.J. As she took a break from showing her guests around, Ms. Nied spoke about the economic benefits of having a wedding in the Ligonier Valley:

• The bride and bridesmaids will use local salons.

• The rehearsal dinner will be at a local restaurant.

• A local florist and bakery will provide their products.

• Guests will stay at local hotels.

• Visitors will spend money at other local businesses.

She said that establishments such as Foxley Farm are key to contributing to the area's economy as part of a growing segment of business called agritourism.

The Agricultural Marketing Research Center defines agritourism as "the act of visiting a working farm operation to enjoy, be educated or be involved in activities."

When she and her husband bought the property -- 60 acres off Barron Road, near Route 711, with a house that dates to the 1830s -- Ms. Nied planned to re-establish it as a working farm after housing an import-export business for decades. To support her endeavors, the Nieds intended to host a variety of events on their property, and they submitted their plans to Ligonier Township.

"Everything was fine until ... ," Ms. Nied said. "We don't know exactly what happened."

Foxley Farm is in a low-density residential district, a situation that has led to a protracted legal conflict with neighbors who don't believe a business should be run there. In turn, township officials have been working toward revising zoning regulations to provide for the concept of agritourism.

Efforts in that regard came to a temporarily halt Tuesday, when the township planning commission voted to "abandon" a proposed amendment to the local zoning and subdivision ordinance, in part addressing new provisions for mixed-use buildings and structures.

"There's no extensive proposal in there for agritourism," Robert Smithley, commission chairman, said after the meeting. "It really didn't address the subject to our satisfaction."

He said the planning commission would await direction from township supervisors before proceeding.

During September's planning commission meeting, three Barron Road residents -- Dave Barnhart, Christopher Turner and Donald Korb -- spoke against amending the ordinance, according to the meeting minutes. Also objecting was Joshua Whetzel, who is on the board of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a group that had sought an injunction in Westmoreland County Court to prevent the Nieds from holding events at Foxley Farm.

Defending the Nieds on Tuesday was Ligonier Borough Mayor Butch Bellas, who has conducted weddings at the venue.

"We do need the tourist dollars," he told the commission. "What Maggie and P.J. want to do will bring dollars to the valley. I think it's a good idea."

The Nieds, who also own Ligonier Country Inn on Route 30, use produce grown on the farm for the inn's restaurant and have hosted farm-to-table dinners at Foxley.

"I consider myself an agribusiness. I'm a farm. I want to stay a farm," said Ms. Nied. "My use for a wedding, out of a whole year, is less than 1 percent of the time I'm here."

But in her opinion, those relatively short periods of time pay dividends for plenty of people around Ligonier.

"I really believed that I was doing something good for the community," she said.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Harry Funk, freelance writer: First Published October 17, 2013 1:06 AM


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