Business Community Environment

Harbor Farms shutters Rosedale Street venue, buys larger North Rosedale site

Posted on April 3rd, 2024 By:

A farm-oriented amusement venue that made a splash when it operated for a few weekends last fall has closed its doors (or rather, farmyard gates) for good at its Rosedale Street location.

For sale signs popped up along its split-rail fence earlier this month, surprising passersby.

Harbor Farms, the creation of Gig Harbor pizzeria and café owners Justin and Lauren Himenes, experienced a rocky tenure since the couple bought their 5.15 acres at 7777 Rosedale Street in April 2022. Justin Himenes calls it a “learning experience.”

While popular with some local parents, the operation drew the ire of many neighbors. They accused the couple of playing fast and loose with county zoning and environmental codes. Some described Harbor Farms as a threat to the privacy and quietude of their woodsy neighborhood.

Pierce County took enforcement action against the Himeneses on two occasions. Officials sent a Notice and Order to Correct letter for wetlands violations in August 2022; and another for zoning and building code violations in December 2023.

Livestock peer through a gate at the old Harbor Farms location at 7777 Rosedale Street. Photo from Pierce County files

Possible new location

But Harbor Farms’ sudden closing at 7777 Rosedale Street may not mark its end. The Himeneses in early February bought a larger property at 7725 92nd St. NW, a quiet, rural road in North Rosedale.

The new 13.2-acre site borders Sehmel Homestead Park to the north. To the south, across 92nd Street, are farms of the Rosedale Valley. The land boasts a creek, forests and a large area that is already cleared.

Justin Himenes would not discuss the couple’s plans for that property. But in preliminary drawings submitted to the county, Harbor Farms’ owners indicated where they would like to have a pumpkin patch, petting zoo, farm store, hayrides, Christmas tree sales, u-pick fruits and other commercial attractions.

The couple’s success at the new property is not assured. To gain county approval, they’ll need to show they are raising at least two acres of crops, or doing ranching or animal husbandry on at least five acres. That requirement stymied efforts to move forward with their plans at 7777 Rosedale Street.

Red lines mark the boundaries of the Himeneses’ new property near Sehmel Homestead Park.

Business background

Justin Himenes, 39, grew up in Bakersfield, Calif. – in farm country, but not on a farm, he said. His early career was in franchise businesses. He worked his way up the corporate ladder for a company that owned Subway sandwich stores.

“My passion is business and people,” he said. A franchise is a good choice for him because “I can just operate the business” and do what he loves, he said.

Justin and Lauren Himenes met in the Bay Area. They opened their first business, a Yogurtland franchise, in Yucaipa, Calif., in 2014.

After a few years, the couple tired of Southern California and looked toward the Northwest, where they felt life would be more easy-going, Justin Himenes said. They checked out Portland, Idaho and Eastern Washington. When Lauren Himenes researched good schools – they were parents by then – Gig Harbor kept coming up, he said.

They visited the town for the first time on Dec. 26, 2016, and loved what they saw, Justin Himenes said.

In short order, the couple sold their home and business in California and moved to Gig Harbor. They soon acquired both the Round Table Pizza franchise in Olympic Village and the Cutters Point Coffee Co. cafe in the Uptown Gig Harbor shopping center. They settled down, buying a house on a sloping, western stretch of Rosedale Street near the fire station and Rosedale Cemetery.

Clearing an overgrown property

The idea of “working on the land and creating things” appealed to him, Justin Himenes said. “We knew we wanted more land eventually.”

When the property across the street at 7777 Rosedale came up for sale, they snapped it up. Himenes said his original goal was to create outdoor activities to enjoy with friends and family. The couple started adding chickens, ducks and goats to the property, and modifying the landscape.

Justin Himenes said his violation notices from Pierce County concerning wetlands stemmed from his accidentally taking a wrong turn with a bulldozer.

A sign at the former Harbor Farms location at 7777 Rosedale Street indicates the operation is moving. Photo by Ted Kenney

When the couple bought the property, a low, flat portion along Rosedale Street — the part of the farm that seemed promising for hosting activities, and perhaps having a barn someday — contained mostly invasive blackberry bushes, he said. It also held English holly trees, red alder, Douglas fir, and an understory of salal, sword fern and other plants. Running down the middle was a stream rated by the county as N2, or non-fish-bearing.

When they were still in escrow with the property, the Himeneses engaged a biologist to walk it with them. Justin Himenes said the purpose of that visit was to learn the location of any environmentally sensitive areas including wetlands, in order to avoid disturbing them.

He said that a biologist employed by Pierce County was also involved in this early vetting; a Pierce County spokesperson said the county could not find records of such a visit.

Stop work order

Justin Himenes said that, armed with a biologist’s report on where he should not clear, he began cutting a footpath through the lower area of the property. While on his bulldozer, he viewed a location that his biologist had approved for a footbridge. Then he saw an area to the left that looked like it might be a better path, and ventured into it, he said.

In other words, Himenes’ explanation for the damaged wetlands is that he accidentally went outside the approved area with his bulldozer.

Neighbors on an adjoining private road reported the clearing, prompting a visit from Pierce County. “Site visit on 8/16/22,” wrote Mary Van Haren, a county environmental biologist, in the code enforcement database. “From Dogwood Lane I observed clearing and grading that had occurred throughout much of the eastern half of the property,” including in protected areas near the stream and wetlands. She posted a stop-work order.

Other neighbors used more colorful language to describe what had happened on the property.

“They tore everything down (and) uprooted all the trees. They bulldozed and hauled everything away,” said William Slota, a neighbor who has lived across Rosedale Street from the site for more than 20 years.

Neighbors’ complaints

Slota said that in 2023, for the first time, he no longer heard frogs croaking at night in summer.

The frogs lived in “what used to be a forested swamp,” Slota said. He recalled messaging the Himeneses to ask if they’d done anything that might have silenced the frogs. He characterized their response as along the lines of “Oh no, we did our environmental studies” and avoided any habitat damage.

Another neighbor said the removal of plant life left a “giant mudpit” in the area along Rosedale Street. “It was a wetlands that got cleared overnight,” she said.

Soon, Pierce County sent the Himeneses their first Notice and Order to Correct, citing violations of laws that ban clearing and grading within set distances from streams and wetlands. To avoid fines, the county required them to hire an environmental biologist (they used the same one who’d visited the site during escrow) to prepare a Wetland Delineation/Habitat Assessment Study and a plan to mitigate the damage.

The Himeneses had to replant some 100 native trees and shrubs on their land and fund monitoring to ensure the plants’ survival. In addition, the county prepared a Wetland, Fish & Wildlife Habitat Area/Buffer Notice. On Feb. 1, 2023, Justin Himenes recorded the notice with the Pierce County Auditor so that it now runs with the property’s title.

Among other things, it states the location of the stream and wetlands; notes the violations, defines buffer areas and setbacks; and binds the owners to cease violations and follow the mitigation plan.

Fall festivities

It should be noted that not every neighbor hated the Himenes’ clearing. “It’s just alders,” said one, who asked not to be identified by name. This resident described the land in its previous, scrub-filled state as “probably the nastiest piece of property in Gig Harbor.”

“I figured it was his land and he can do whatever the heck he wants.”

Meanwhile, the reaction from friends visiting the property was so positive that the couple recognized the need for a pumpkin patch or similar farm-oriented experience in the area, Justin Himenes said. In July 2023, the Himeneses applied to Pierce County for a temporary event permit to host Harbor Farms Pumpkin Patch. Activities would include pumpkin sales, a petting zoo, barrel rides and “other fall festivity activities.”

Barrel rides at Harbor Farms in October 2023.

The county approved the event to operate over four weekends from Sept. 29 through Oct. 31 that year.

Jumping the gun?

The Himenes’ relations with their neighbors worsened.

Some complained to the county that the couple advertised their upcoming events before the temporary permit was approved. They alleged Harbor Farms pitched activities outside the scope of the permit, such as weddings and parties, and took reservations via their website for dates not stated on the permit application.

“Sat. 9/9/23 Harbor Farms conducted a ‘farm tour’ open to the public,” one complaint read. “This was a public event advertised as such, with online reservations.”

“Guest[s] entered from Rosedale [Street], parked, proceeded to red kiosks (placed on the property 9/8/23) where Lauren Himenes checked in guests from a clipboard she was carrying. … During the event Justin Himenes pulled two open ‘Barrel Rides’ full of children with a tractor from the top portion of the property, down original road, along wetland buffer, through wetland, looping back up steep incline to top portion of the property,” another complaint read.

Play Town structures

Himenes said they took reservations for Sept. 9, despite not yet having their event permit, “to have a trial run of our property layout to get things ready for the pumpkin patch.” After the county informed them it wasn’t permitted, they cancelled the event and issued refunds, he said.

However, he let the county know that they were going to invite some friends’ kids over that day to experience their farm and “the county was totally fine with it,” he said.

“It looks as though the circus is coming to town on this property,” another complaint read. Another, lodged Sept. 2, stated the Himenes’ “have built 3 garden sheds in the back of their property without sufficient setbacks” and “have advertised this as a ‘Western Town Play Area’ on their website … these buildings are not permitted or inspected by the county and children will be going inside these sheds to play/jump around during their upcoming event.”

Justin Himenes says he is removing these buildings from the Western Play Town area at the old Harbor Farms property at 7777 Rosedale Street.

Himenes said he is in the process of removing the three structures. He said the neighbor’s charge of offering an uninspected and unsafe play area is discredited by the fact that “when fire and safety came to do their inspection, they reviewed everything we were offering the public, including the ‘western town’ and said everything was in good order for public safety,” except they needed a few more fire extinguishers.

When a barn isn’t a barn

On Dec. 6, 2023, the county sent its second Notice and Order to Correct to the Himeneses, this time for zoning and building code violations. Transgressions included “advertising on your website to have ‘Birthday Party Events’ at Harbor Farms. The closest Use Category to fit birthday parties in the Pierce County Use Table is an ‘Event Facility’.” The property’s Rural Sensitive Resource zoning does not allow such facilities, the letter said.

Harbor Farms in October 2023.

The county also said the couple converted a former detached garage into a barn without obtaining a change of use permit and also built “commercial structures used for Harbor Farms business uses without obtaining required building permit.”

Justin Himenes responded that the claim Harbor Farms created an unpermitted barn stemmed from a misunderstanding. He and his wife had only dressed up their freestanding garage to look barn-like, to fit Harbor Farms’ theme.

He submitted photos showing they used the structure for woodworking and storage, and the county backed off from its charge, he said. “They suggested we not call it a ‘barn’ anymore so there is no confusion,” Himenes added.

Property doesn’t fit the vision

The Notice of Order to Correct threatened fines and referral to the Pierce County prosecutor “to pursue criminal misdemeanor charges” if Harbor Farms did not comply with its instructions.

“Once you have established Harbor Farms as an agricultural operation on your parcel of land, you must fully comply with Pierce County Agritourism Regulations for the uses and activities you would like to conduct in relationship to Harbor Farms,” the letter noted.

But toward the end of 2023, the Himeneses were becoming less sure their property could get approval to permanently offer a full range of farm-related activities. They’d learned they would need a conditional use permit for agritourism. To get that, they’d have to show at least 2 acres in agricultural crop production or operation, or 5 acres of ranch/animal husbandry; or combination of these approved by the county.

With wetlands on part of their 5.15 acre property, required setbacks consuming additional land, and other areas on the property that are just too hilly, the couple determined they’d do better by working with another site.

Some neighbors will miss them

They consider their operation at 7777 Rosedale Street to have been a success, Justin Himenes said.

“We were sold out every weekend except the opening weekend,” he said. “Just the community support and the excitement we saw on the kids’ faces was second to none.”

Some patrons of their fall 2023 pumpkin patch said they’d miss the Himeneses and their activities at 7777 Rosedale Street. One neighbor – who didn’t want her name published – said she appreciated the couple’s invitation to visit the pumpkin patch before it opened.

“They’re lovely people,” she said. Now that the Himenes’ are leaving, she’s concerned about the property’s future. She said she hopes new owners won’t turn it into a construction site for a long period, or clear the entire property.