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County disputes parts of “Boneta Bill”

Monday, Jan. 7 | By Bill Walsh
On August 2nd, a large group protested outside the Warren Green building in Warrenton. --Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Fauquier County released a press release last week in response to Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter's decision to introduce legislation in this year's General Assembly resulting from the county's 2012 dispute with Paris farmer Martha Boneta.

"This release is provided to summarize Fauquier County’s official response to Delegate Scott Lingamfelter’s introduction of the “The Boneta Bill” (as per a press release dated January 02, 2013) and to address several statements made in that press release which the County believes are misleading and erroneous.

Background

In April 2012, in response to complaints from neighboring landowners, Piedmont Agriculture Academy (PAA) — an operation owned and managed by Ms. Martha Boneta -- was sent a Notice of Zoning Violation and Corrective Order related to zoning violations on its property in Paris, Fauquier County.

PAA was informed that, if it did not comply, it could face fines of up to $5,000 as prescribed by the Code of Virginia. It is important to note that no actual fines were imposed in this matter.

Typically, after sending a notice of violation, County staff works with the property owner to resolve the issues amicably. If the issues are not resolved, the County can issue a civil summons, which carries a fine of $200 to $500, per violation, up to $5,000.

PAA elected to challenge the Notice of Violation rather than comply, and appealed the violation to the Fauquier County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). On August 2nd, the BZA heard PAA’s appeal and found that the Zoning Administrator’s determination was correct.

Under the County’s Zoning Ordinance, PAA may continue to farm the property by right and may sell its own farm goods, such as fruits and vegetables, and value-added farm goods produced on site, at its current location. PAA may also provide tours of the farm on a by right basis. Neither of these activities has been disputed or prohibited by Fauquier County. In fact, PAA may continue these activities on site at its discretion.

The issue at hand, however, is that products not produced by PAA 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.

To sell agricultural products brought in from other properties, and to conduct workshops, educational classes, etc., PAA is required to obtain a one-time $150 administrative permit for “Farm Sales.” This permit allows staff to confirm that safe public access is being provided into the property and that adequate parking is available to accommodate traffic generated. This permit also allows staff to ensure that there are adequate restroom facilities—especially in a case such as this where there is no residence on the site.

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. 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.

Inaccuracies

Delegate Lingamfelter’s indication that “unfortunately, Martha has had to close down her doors and put a disclaimer on her website that visitors are no longer welcome and that they are no longer able to purchase her farm fresh produce or handmade 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. 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. This expanded level of sales requires an Administrative Permit, a one-time $150 permit issued once it is confirmed that there is safe ingress-egress with a safe area for parking off of the road.

The following statement in Delegate Lingamfelter’s press release is erroneous: “In August of 2012, Martha 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. County government officials informed Martha 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. Martha was also charged with two additional violations with up to $5,000 fines apiece - one for advertising a pumpkin carving and another for operating a small shop on her property that Martha used to sell her fresh produce and handmade crafts. County officials made these claims and levied fines without ever stepping foot on her property to actually see her operations.”

In point of fact, Ms. Boneta was not cited for having a birthday party. Ms. Boneta 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 referenced in number (1.) above. But non-agricultural-related events require special permit/special exception approval. Contrary to Delegate Lingamfelter’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 $5000.

The following statement in Delegate Lingamfelter’s press release is also erroneous: “When Martha informed the county that she had obtained a business license to operate her farm store, local bureaucrats told her that the county regulations had been recently changed to require additional permits to sell items like handspun yarns and birdhouses.”

In fact, the regulations had been changed the prior year to give farmers such as Ms. Boneta more flexibility in selling their farm products. The change in regulations permits the sale of such products with a simple, one-time, $150 Administrative Permit instead of the previously required (and more arduous and expensive) special permit or exception.

Conclusion

Fauquier County has a long history of fulfilling its strong commitment to the local farming community. Land use regulatory authority is a resource which ensures the health and safety of the County’s citizens. Such authority must be carefully balanced with personal rights and the promotion of local businesses. Fauquier County has worked long and hard to affect this balance.

For example, the County recently approved applications for a community farmers’ market which will open in Bealeton in 2013. This process required the County to work hand in hand with the landowners and to change the County’s regulations in a manner beneficial to all. In addition, the 2011 County code amendment, which has been widely discussed as part of the PAA case, actually removed a number of restrictions that were in place prior to its adoption. This was but one of the County’s many efforts to promote and foster agriculture as an integral part of its culture and economic environment."

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