By Jessica Dahlberg
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Martha Boneta was living her childhood dream of being a farmer for six years until August, when Fauquier County officials charged her with zoning ordinance violations for hosting seasonal events and selling handcrafts at her farm in Paris.
The county’s handling of Boneta caused people to rally around her in support. They called themselves “Martha’s Army” and armed themselves with pitchforks. With Boneta as their spokeswoman, they demanded a law that would protect small family farms from local regulations.
Republican Delegate Scott Lingamfelter of Woodbridge answered their plea Tuesday with legislation that would amend Virginia’s 1981 Right to Farm Act.
Lingamfelter is sponsoring House Bill 1430, nicknamed the “Boneta Bill.” It seeks to expand the definition of agricultural operations and hold county officials personally responsible for any violations of the Right to Farm Act.
County officials last week disputed Lingamfelter’s representation of the Boneta case.
“This bill introduced by Delegate Lingamfelter is about putting a little more detail into our common understanding of what farming practices are and to make sure the intent of the Virginia Right to Farm Act makes its way into the practical reality of how local governments treat our small farms,” Boneta said as she joined the legislator at a press conference Tuesday.
If the bill passes, agricultural operations would be redefined to include farm-to-business and farm-to-consumer sales. Items covered under the proposed bill are art, literature, artifacts, furniture, food, beverages and other items that are minor to the operation of a farm but helpful in providing additional income.
“This is about permitting people that are zoned agriculture to do agriculture,” Lingamfelter said.
On her farm, Boneta sold vegetables, herbs, honeybee products, eggs, handmade soaps and wool crafts. Last year, she was cited for selling the handmade crafts in her small shop, which she had a business license for. County officials, however, told her she needed an additional permit to sell these items because county regulations had recently been changed.
Boneta said selling additional goods like Christmas tree stands or lemonade at an apple orchard may seem small, but they can be the difference between paying monthly bills or not making the bills for the month.
Boneta was also cited for hosting a birthday party for a little girl. Officials said that local law required a permit for hosting an event and that she could be fined $5,000 for the party.
In response to the birthday party fine, the Boneta Bill would void a section of current law that limits the exercise of rights, such as freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, by people, property or activities on land zoned for agriculture.
“This bill is not just about our little farm,” Boneta said. “It’s about all family farms, property rights, economic freedom and the American dream.”
Boneta has closed her farm to visitors and has filed a lawsuit in Fauquier Circuit Court.