House bill would place limits on county zoning
Wednesday, Jan. 9
This farm in Paris is the subject of a bill introduced in the General Assembly by Del. Scott Lingamfelter to strengthen that state's Right to Farm Act. Times-Democrat file photo
Virginia Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-31st) introduced legislation to help Fauquier farmer Martha Boneta in her fight with Fauquier County over what she can sell and do at her Paris farm.
House Bill 1430 (the Boneta Bill), would strengthen Virginia's Right to Farm Act (VRFA) and protect farmers against future encroachments by local government, according to Lingamfelter.
"House Bill 1430 will ensure that no government official, elected or appointed, will restrict the right to property that our Founding Fathers, many of whom were Virginia farmers, held as inherent and sacred," said Lingamfelter.
The Boneta Bill attempts to add teeth to the Virginia Right to Farm Act to protect property rights and individual liberties, he said.
Fauquier's Assistant County Administrator Katie Heritage, in a press release, pointed out what the county believes the root problem is "that products not produced by [PAA, Piedmont Agriculture Academy, Boneta's farm] have been sold on-site, as well as non-agricultural products.
"In addition, other activities have been held on-site that are not incidental to the by-right farming operation that PAA has established," she said.
The county maintains that selling agricultural products brought in from other properties, and conducting workshops, educational classes, etc., require PAA to obtain a one-time $150 administrative permit for "farm sales."
The permit, according to Heritage, allows county staff to confirm that the property has safe public access, sufficient parking and adequate restroom facilities, especially at locations without a residence.
“If PAA wishes to conduct activities and events that have no relationship to the agricultural products actually grown on-site, a special permit or special exception is required," Heritage said. "This would include commercial and/or for-profit events, such as lectures on non-agricultural topics, yoga, wine tastings, and utilizing the barn for parties, receptions, etc."
Heritage called into question several statements in Lingamfelter's press release.
She said the delegate's contention that Boneta has had to close down and put a disclaimer on her website that visitors are no longer welcome and no longer able to purchase her produce or crafts is inaccurate.
"Ms. Boneta has always been allowed to sell the goods produced on the farm and has never been told she needed to shut down," said Heritage.
"Rather, Ms. Boneta was cited for expanding her sales to include other people's farm products and 'crafts' not produced on-site or from her own agricultural products," Heritage said.
Those activities require a one-time, $150 administrative permit after the county confirms that the site has safe ingress-egress and room for off-road parking.
The county also maintains that Lingamfelter is wrong in saying Boneta “received national media attention after she held a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls, one of whom was the daughter of a close friend.”
Lingamfelter goes on to say that Fauquier County told Boneta that local ordinances required a permit to be obtained prior to hosting such an event and that she would be fined $5,000 for doing so.
“County officials made these claims and levied fines without ever stepping foot on her property to actually see her operations," he said.
But Heritage notes that Boneta was not cited for having a birthday party. Rather she was cited for having, and representing that her farm was available for, a variety of activities including parties, classes, festivals and other events.
Any of these activities related to the agricultural products grown on-site are allowed with the administrative permit, Heritage said.
However, non-agricultural-related events require special permit/special-exception approval, she said. Contrary to the delegate's press release, no fines were ever levied.
"Ms. Boneta was advised that if she did not comply with the Zoning Ordinance, additional actions would be taken to include legal actions or fines up to $5,000," Heritage said.
Warrenton-based Piedmont Environmental Council joined county officials in panning the Boneta Bill, saying "the county's response was necessary to clarify the facts of the Boneta case, according to PEC's Julie Bolthouse.
The group opposes the bill because it's "an attempt to allow commercial activities in rural areas without any county oversight, and is a direct attack on rural zoning in general," she said.
"Localities have been empowered to anticipate and avoid negative impacts and provide infrastructure for their communities in a fiscally responsible manner through planning and zoning," she said.
"The proposed legislation is unnecessary, overly broad, and would undermine the legitimacy of local planning and zoning statewide," Bolthouse said.
Passage of the bill would have broad implications on a locality's ability to plan rural communities and enforce zoning, she said.
But Lingamfelter countered that he is not against zoning laws. "I don't want a concert in my backyard."
"But this isn't a revolutionary thing to want to farm and conduct farm business in an agriculturally zoned area," he said.
Responding the county's criticism of the bill, he said, "I think the county is sincere in what they believe, but I think they are sincerely wrong," he said.
"Ms. Boneta disputes the facts as they are presented by Fauquier County and that's why we have a independent source called the court system to decide who is right.
"Voters should follow the facts, and if they do, they'll see she [Boneta] is telling the truth and is right."