1/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent
RICHMOND, Va. — As the Virginia General Assembly convenes this week for its annual session, a bill to amend the Virginia Right to Farm Act (VRFA) has provoked skeptical reactions from several groups, including the Farm Bureau, conservation advocates and local government.
The VRFA now prohibits local ordinances that would require special use permits or other special exceptions for any farming or forestry activity on land that is zoned for agricultural use (although other local zoning requirements, like minimum setbacks, are still allowed).
House Bill 1430, introduced by Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, would expand the definition of an “agricultural operation” to include direct sales of farm products to consumers and other businesses.
The bill also allows for on-farm sales of a wide variety of things, including “art, literature, artifacts, furniture, food, beverages and other items,” as long as these revenues amount to less than half of the farm’s overall annual revenues.
Opponents of the bill worry this expanded definition opens the door to non-farming business activity in areas specifically zoned for agriculture.
But in a press release issued last week, Lingamfelter said his bill would strengthen the VRFA by ensuring “that government officials cannot take action to restrict or prevent the citizens from engaging in commerce.”
Among critics of the proposal is the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.
“We believe the Right to Farm (Act) adequately protects farmers as written,” said Trey Davis, assistant director for governmental relations with the VFBF. “A lot of our members are concerned what the unintended consequences of this bill could be.”
The Shenandoah Valley Network, an organization working to protect the rural character and agricultural economy of the valley, opposes the bill for its potential to remove local control from land-use decisions.
“(This) legislation would gut the sensible, non-controversial zoning ordinances in the valley’s major agricultural counties — Rockingham, Augusta and Shenandoah — as well as elsewhere in Virginia,” said spokeswoman Megan Gallagher, in a press release for the group.
Gallagher also described the bill as “an overreach” that would tie the hands of local officials in the valley who have worked closely with farmers to develop ordinances that strengthen the area’s farming economy.
That point has also been brought up by local government critics of the bill. This week, the Clarke County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to send a letter to its state representatives that reads, “We are strongly opposed to this legislation, and request your active support to ensure its withdrawal or defeat.”
Lingamfelter’s bill was written in response to an ongoing controversy in Fauquier County, where a farmer named Martha Boneta was threatened with stiff fines for several violations of the county’s zoning ordinance, including hosting events and conducting farm sales without the proper permits.
The case gained national attention last summer when more than 100 people staged a “pitchfork protest” in support of farmers’ property rights outside a hearing to consider Boneta’s appeal of the ordinance violations.
These and other supporters of Lingamfelter’s so-called “Boneta Bill” worry that overregulation of farming threatens farmers’ livelihoods and violates their constitutional rights.
The Boneta Bill also creates provisions that would hold counties, and individual county employees, liable for any violations of the VRFA. (In the meantime, Boneta has an ongoing $2 million lawsuit against the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors and other government officials.)
As of press time, the bill had yet to be assigned to a committee in the House of Delegates.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, who sits on the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, said he hasn’t yet decided his position on the bill.
“I’ll definitely be giving it due diligence,” said Wilt, who represents much of Rockingham County, the largest agricultural county in the state.
Lingamfelter, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run for lieutenant governor this fall, was joined Tuesday by well-known Shenandoah Valley farmer and local foods activist Joel Salatin for a press conference in support of the bill.