By Kate Miller
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — An agritourism bill that would restrict local regulation of customary agricultural and farm activities has passed the Senate.
Senate Bill 51 would prohibit Virginia counties from regulating the management of agritourism for-profit events; the sale of agricultural or silvicultural (forest) products or related items; the preparation or sale of foods that are not otherwise in violation of state law and other customary activities without a “substantial impact on the health, safety or general welfare of the public.”
Localities would not have the authority to require a special-use permit for any of the activities listed above.
No local ordinance regulating sound produced by the activities listed above could be more restrictive than the general local noise ordinance, except if an ordinance regulates the sound of outdoor amplified music.
Sen. William Stanley, R-Moneta, says SB51 would empower farmers.
“We want to make sure that we’re encouraging agritourism,” Stanley said, “that we’re encouraging the product of the small farmer to be brought to market on the farmer’s terms, rather than being the captive of a vender.”
SB51, which was introduced by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, passed the Senate this past week with a 32-7 vote. According to Trey Davis, an assistant director of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau, Sen. Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk, initially voted against the bill but has since changed his vote. The measure has been referred to the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.
Delegate Robert Orrock, R-Thornburg, introduced House Bill 268, a bill similar to SB51. Orrock says HB268 seeks to achieve the same effect as SB51. HB268 passed the House two weeks ago with a 73-23 vote and has been referred to the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.
Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, says SB51 would allow the wine industry in Virginia to grow by combating local overregulation for winery owners.
“A lot of counties have tried to restrict, regulate and frankly put these wineries out of business,” Petersen said.
Davis says SB51 was introduced because an agricultural working group developed a compromise after House Bill 1430 was defeated last year.
HB1430 would have amended the Right to Farm Act by expanding the definition of agricultural operations to include “commerce of farm-to-business and farm-to-consumer sales” in addition to the ability to sell other related items. According to the measure, an agricultural operation on agriculture-zoned property would meet local zoning ordinances.
HB1430 is commonly referred to as the “Boneta Bill,” in reference to Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta, who was threatened with thousands of dollars in fines by the county for selling farm products and home crafts, and adverting and hosting events without authorization.
Davis, who served as a Virginia Farm Bureau representative for the working group, says the bureau supports SB51 but opposed HB1430 a year ago because the bureau did not support the amendment to the Right to Farm Act and believed the bill was too broadly written.
Davis says the Right to Farm Act is very important to the bureau membership because the act protects agricultural production practices from being considered a nuisance.
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, voted against SB51. Sam Bosch, Ebbin’s legislative aide, stated the senator opposed the bill based on issues of “clarity in the language” because the meaning of both “substantial” impact and “regulate” are not clearly defined in the bill.
Stanley says residents — including farmers — in Fauquier County and members of the local government are responsible for much of the lobbying against SB51.
“There seems to be a desire at the local level there (Fauquier County) to overregulate and minimize farm production,” Stanley said, “and the ability to make a living.”
Dan Gisselquist is a Fauquier County farmer who supports SB51 and says he personally has experienced local overregulation of agricultural activities.
“Our county has decided that they like to harass farmers,” Gisselquist said.
Gisselquist also says SB51 will benefit food quality.
“It is very much in the farmer’s interest to invite his customers to see what he’s doing,” Gisselquist said, “and see how he’s doing it to convince people that what he’s got is a really quality product.”