Who’s Out Of Control?
Conservationists Fear ‘Right To Farm’ Changes Would Hamstring County Zoners
Posted: January 9, 2013
HARRISONBURG — Valley conservationists are rankled over proposed legislation that they say would strip local governments of zoning control of agricultural land.
Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, introduced the bill in response to a dispute between Fauquier County zoning officials and Martha Boneta, who claims she was fined last year by the county for selling items made at her 70-acre farm in Paris and hosting a children’s birthday party for a friend’s daughter.
County officials, however, say Lingamfelter and Boneta have provided misleading and inaccurate information about the matter, and they say no fine was ever assessed.
Meanwhile, Shenandoah Valley conservationists watching the drama from the sidelines hope Lingamfelter’s legislation is unsuccessful. They fear it would open the door to development in rural areas by hamstringing zoning officials.
“You put a big event center out in the middle of a rural area [and] it changes that whole area,” said Kim Sandum, executive director of Rockingham County Community Alliance for Preservation.
The General Assembly convenes today.
Lingamfelter, who is a candidate in this year’s race for lieutenant governor, held a news conference Tuesday in Richmond to discuss the legislation, which would amend the Right to Farm Act to make it clear farmers can sell items “incidental” to operations at their property, including “art, literature, artifacts, furniture, food, [and] beverages,” the bill says.
The legislation also would nullify zoning ordinances that “restrict the free exercise of rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Virginia or United States Constitution,” including freedom of assembly. Zoning officials could be sued for violating the bill.
Boneta closed her farm to the public last year after the spat with county officials. Her supporters protested the county’s action by carrying pitchforks to local government offices.
The 42-year-old, who has a business license to operate the small farm store, has since sued the county for millions in civil damages and fees, according to The Associated Press.
Lingamfelter said the county’s actions violated Boneta’s fundamental rights and unfairly restricted her property rights.
“It shouldn’t be an issue,” he told reporters in Richmond, according to the AP. “It offends your fundamental sense of what is right when you hear about it.”
But Fauquier County officials, in a press release posted on Fauquiernow.com, say the situation has been misrepresented.
In response to complaints from neighbors, Boneta was sent a notice of zoning violation telling her to comply with zoning law and saying if she refused, she could face fines for each violation up to $5,000, the release says.
County officials say the problem was not with Boneta selling products made on her farm but with the sale of items not produced on-site and other nonagricultural products, which she would need a permit to market.
Also, the children’s birthday party that Lingamfelter uses to criticize the county’s action was not the issue zoning officials had, they say.
It was about having and advertising the use of her farm for special events and activities without obtaining a permit, county staff say. The permit application process allows staff members to tour a site to ensure there are adequate parking and restroom facilities and other accommodations for large groups.
If Lingamfelter’s bill is successful, Sandum said, it would undermine an agritourism ordinance that the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors approved in May.
The local ordinance aims to encourage agribusiness and streamline the process for farmers to meet zoning requirements to generate secondary income from their operations.
Rockingham County Administrator Joe Paxton said the county has not taken a position on Lingamfelter’s bill. It may be discussed at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
“[H]is legislation would gut the sensible, noncontroversial zoning ordinances in the Valley’s major agricultural counties,” Megan Gallagher, a spokeswoman for Luray-based Shenandoah Valley Network, said in a statement.
The bill’s language allowing lawsuits against county employees is also a concern for local groups.
“This is a tremendous overreach, threatening local government employees just for doing their jobs,” Gallagher said in the statement. “If landowners are unhappy with local zoning, they should work with county residents and officials to reach agreement on a change, not rush to court or the state legislature.”
Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or firstname.lastname@example.org