Fauquier’s zoning issues heat up with pitchfork protest

AFP Correspondent

WARRENTON, Va. — A handful of real farmers and more than 50 land rights supporters and Tea Partiers waving wooden pitchforks showed up at the Aug. 2 monthly meeting of Fauquier County’s Board of Zoning Appeals to protest the County’s recent attempts to regulate family farms and wineries.
Despite the heat, people came from as far as Sterling, Mineral and Charlottesville. The appeal, which was lost despite the efforts of a formidable Northern Virginia attorney and protracted e-mail and letter-writing campaign, involved the 64-acre Liberty Farm in Paris, Va., that, according to Kimberly Johnson, Fauquier’s zoning administrator, is “operating multiple businesses on the property” without proper permits.
In June, the farm was served with a notice from the Fauquier Department of Community Development that it was in violation of county ordinances, although in June of the previous year the farm received a business license for a “retail farm shop.”
One month after the farm received its business license, the county zoning ordinance was amended to include “Farm Sales” and the county says the farm needed an additional permit to be compliant.
Martha Boneta, bought the property six years ago and started the Piedmont Agricultural Academy there which encompasses her numerous business ventures. There is no residence on the site; it’s a working farm. Boneta lives in Vienna, and according to some of her Paris neighbors, is not a farmer and is very inexperienced.
Her operation consists of farm sales, rescued animals, an organic tea café, and special events which have included filming a documentary, a seasonal pumpkin patch and carving event and birthday parties.
The birthday party part, has many steamed. Boneta hosted a birthday party at the farm for her best friend’s daughter and nine friends. The birthday party, according to Johnson, was grounds for fines up to $5,000 since proper special events permits were not obtained.
Appealing a Notice of Zoning Violation and Corrective Order takes a lot of time, money and energy, not to mention Boneta, said she planted 2,000 tomato plants and 1,000 eggplants, started an apiary this year, and she is responsible for numerous animals.
The appeal process requires submitting a land development application, paying a filing fee of $500 and writing the basis for the appeal within 30 days. In the appeal, Boneta’s lawyer invoked the Virginia Right to Farm Act, but the county’s attorney argued the act was misinterpreted.
Virginia law protects the rights of farmers to sell what they grow and agricultural value-added products like jams and jellies, pies, soap, candles, and the like. The Paris farm is the only one that has ever been cited, according to information from a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the appellant’s attorney.
Zoning laws for family farms and agriculture are an emotional subject. Many of the protesters believe Fauquier County is breaking the law and trespassing on the property and agricultural rights of farmers, their patrons and their families. This has brought out attacks on the county’s zoning department from several groups.
The head of the board of zoning, Johnson, who’s been at the helm for eight years, “ is abusing her office, is in violation of law, is out of control and needs to be removed,” says Fauquier County Citizens for Family Farms (FCCFF), which has called for her ouster and, after the loss, is threatening to proceed with lawsuits. They claim the issue will go national.
The FCCFF is a newly organized group formed to support Boneta. The head of FCCFF, Rick Buchanan, is also the head of the local Tea Party. Buchanan says “strict permitting would make farming precarious.”
The Rutherford Institute, the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association and numerous other groups have commented on the situation, and urged their members and supporters to attend the Aug. 2 hearing.
Not all are in Boneta’s corner, however.
Tom Davenport, whose family owns Hollin Farms, lives and works just down the road from Boneta’s property on Route 17. Hollin Farms is a four-generation farm that specializes in grass-fed Angus beef, pork, horse hay and pick-your-own fruits and vegetables. After the meeting, Davenport said, “ I think Fauquier County, in general, is quite open to farmers. It’s too bad this issue was inflamed by the media and blown out of proportion. When Boneta bought the property, she knew it was heavily restricted. I believe extreme property rights people are taking up a cause without really looking at the issues.”
The bottom line is Boneta now has to pay an administrative fee of $150 for an appeal if she wants to continue doing what she’s doing at her farm. According to Andrew Hashour, Fauquier’s assistant chief of zoning, Boneta has 30 days to appeal in Fauquier County Circuit Court.
While “perfect storm” and “Fauquier theatre” are some of the creative metaphors used to describe the situation in the county, Boneta isn’t the only producer of farm products to scoff at recent county regulations. Wineries have also been the subject of zoning changes.
Fauquier County calls itself the heart of Virginia Wine Country. The county is now the third largest wine producer in the state, with 26 wineries and vineyards. The number of wineries and vineyards has rapidly increased in recent years, and the county’s Board of Supervisors and the Office of Community Development have been struggling with how to regulate it as a land use.
Gov. McDonnell has set the goal of making Virginia the East Coast capital for wine and wine tourism. However, all is not well in Fauquier.
In July, the county approved a new winery ordinance, which has been in the works for five years, that will limit the number of events, the number of people, what food can be served and use of amplified music outdoors.
After years of debate, rescheduled votes, a law suit filed and then withdrawn, masses of people showed up for standing-room-only performances by members of the Board of Supervisors and the public before the vote last month. Since the board room has only 49 chairs, people leaned against the walls, overflowed into the hallway, sat on the steps and in a room with a TV on the second floor.
At that hearing the voices of the winemakers ranged from fear of going out of business to one who agreed with the ordinance. Another winemaker boldly suggested scrapping it and establishing a commission to handle issues case by case.
Landowners neighboring wineries complained about the noise and disruption of the countryside, and the hazards of drunks driving down unfamiliar country roads.
The winery ordinance comes only months after the Virginia Supreme Court upheld a circuit court’s ruling that the Martarella Winery could start its business in spite of a complaint from a nearby homeowner’s association. The higher court ruling came a few weeks after the death of winery owner Jerry Marterella from cancer. 
The Piedmont Environmental Council supported the new ordinance, calling it “balanced” in a report by field officer Dianne Norris although Todd Haymore, Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry, weighed in on the subject with a letter to the members of the county’s board of supervisors, noting that certain provisions of the new ordinance are “in conflict with sections of the Code of Virginia.”
Philip Carter Strother, who owns a winery in Hume, says winery owners will get together to talk about how to challenge the ordinance.