A controversial bill to amend Virginia’s Right to Farm Act passed the House of Delegates this week and is headed for consideration in the state senate.
Introduced by Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, the proposed amendment would expand the definition of an “agricultural operation” under the Right to Farm Act to include direct sales of farm products, including “food, beverages, furniture or other items” from a farm to other businesses and consumers.
The Right to Farm Act currently prohibits localities from restricting production agriculture or forestry on land zoned for agricultural use through special use permits or other methods.
While earning the enthusiastic support of property rights advocates, the bill has been opposed by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, local governments and land preservation groups in the Shenandoah Valley, who fear the bill will interfere with local control over zoning policy.
“Current ordinances governing on-farm activities in the valley were developed by local officials working closely with their farm communities,” said Kim Woodwell, executive director of the Shenandoah Forum, a group dedicated to smart land-use policies in Shenandoah County. “(We) believe these decisions are best made at that level.”
The Virginia Farm Bureau also opposed the bill for that reason, as well as over concerns that an expanded definition of “agricultural operation” would make it easier for nonagricultural commercial activity to occur on land zoned for farming.
Lingamfelter’s bill has been popularly referred to as the “Boneta Bill,” named after a farmer named Martha Boneta in Fauquier County who became involved in a protracted dispute with county government over land-use issues.
Although the bill was amended in committee to include a narrower new definition for “agricultural operation,” the Virginia Farm Bureau and some of its local chapters in the Shenandoah Valley continue to oppose it.
“The way (the bill) is currently written it would allow for anything remotely related to agriculture to be deemed part of an agricultural operation,” said Trey Davis, the Virginia Farm Bureau’s assistant director for government relations. “Opening this door would adversely impact the way local governments work with farmers.”
Lareth May, president of the Rockingham County Farm Bureau, said the group’s board supports the state Farm Bureau’s position on the bill because of its potential to allow other commercial activity on agricultural land that could “end up hurting legitimate farm activities.”
Peter Truban, a Woodstock farmer who sits on the Farm Bureau’s state board, also noted that existing ordinances in a strong agricultural area, like Shenandoah County where he lives, are adequate to protect farmers’ interests.
“The board of supervisors and local government (in Shenandoah County) support agriculture very well. They recognize its importance to the community,” Truban said.
Nevertheless, Lingamfelter’s bill passed the House by a 77-22 margin. All of the delegates representing the Shenandoah Valley, including Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg; Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock; Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave; Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester; Dickie Bell, R-Staunton; and Ben Cline, R-Amherst, voted in favor of the bill. Requests for comment from Wilt, Gilbert and Sherwood were not returned by press time.
Megan Gallagher, spokeswoman for the Shenandoah Valley Network, another rural preservation group, said the group also continues to oppose the bill on similar grounds to the Farm Bureau and others. She noted that a reenactment clause, also added to the bill while it was in committee, requires the same proposal to pass the General Assembly next year before it becomes law.
If the bill does pass this year, Gallagher said she believes — and hopes — that additional scrutiny of its potential consequences and impacts on strong, existing local ordinances will turn public and legislative sentiment against it by next session.