My two older children immediately bee-lined for the hay bale maze … and that's when we noticed a big, unfortunate change. There wasn't one. True, there was a scaled-back maze through a beautiful swath of cornfields. But gone was the elaborate, challenging, enormous hay bale maze Arata's has grown known for having. Also gone was Arata's spooky Haunted House. What was happening? My kids were clearly disappointed. Where was their beloved maze? Who stole one of the most anticipated parts of their Halloween tradition?
As it turns out: the San Mateo County Agricultural Advisory Committee and county government, that's who.
County officials decided that too much of Arata's farmland land use was being devoted to amusement park like attractions and that the farm therefore needed to apply for a coastal development permit. Arata's owner, Chris Gounalakis, applied for an exception to the permit based on "argo-tourism" but was denied. In the end, Mr. Gounalakis had to do away with the Haunted House and drastically scale back the maze. In other words: visitors of all ages lose.
Anyone who has followed Arata's over the years knows that as the farm's reputation and popularity have grown, so the has controversy surrounding it. When neighbors complained about the parking, Arata's proactively responded by hiring parking attendants who guided folks into approved parking spots. Property owners and farmers farther down Highway 1 have complained that Arata's has become such a complete destination point that tourists and visitors aren't making their way down to their farms. Apparently, it's easier to pour a bucket of water on Arata's popularity rather than improve the popularity of your own farm. At the heart of that strategy is the accusation that Arata's is too "amusement park like". This thought process is hard to understand given the fact that Arata's competitors are also under the San Mateo County Farm Bureau's jurisdiction. For example, beloved stalwarts like Webb Ranch and Pastorino's also offer jumpy houses, Haunted Houses, hayrides, train rides. (If that's "amusement park like", sign my family up!! My youngest son, Dylan, can't wait to get there!) All of these wonderful venues bring families out to the farms and to local restaurants and shops and make the process of selecting a pumpkin a true family memory, tradition and celebration.
In these economic times, it's painful to watch government regulation interfere with small business owners and their efforts to compete. It's puzzling to see government not doing everything it can to encourage local farmers (and obviously, pumpkin patch revenue is significant percentage of Arata's bottom line.) While politics at the federal level has led to a shutdown of our national parks, politics and regulatory red-tape on the local level has led to a shut down of something very special to families and Halloween lovers throughout the Bay Area.
Chris Gounalakis and his family vow to continue fighting to obtain permission from the county to bring back the incredible hay maze that Arata's has been known for since 1997. When you listen to Mr. Gounalakis talk about this challenge, you quickly understand that his family is more focused on creating memories for other families than they are on making money. He'll do all he can to overcome "the Grinch" and take back these wonderful Halloween traditions. My family, for one, will be cheering him on.