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On Farm Activities

Rockingham County Board of Supervisors adopted a Resolution on Interpretation of the State Agritourism Legislation on June 18, 2014.

LOCALITIES ‘LOOKING AT ROCKINGHAM’
County Eyes Agritourism Regs

Concern Some May Use New Mandate To Avoid Zoning Rules
By BRYAN GILKERSON
Daily News-Record
6-17-14

HARRISONBURG – How far can local governments go in regulating nonfarming activities on land zoned for agricultural use?

That is the question to be answered as the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors considers clarifying a recent law related to agritourism in Virginia.

The law, signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on March 5, seeks to prevent local governments from regulating agritourism activities, “unless there is a substantial impact on the health, safety, or general welfare of the public.”

The issue boils down to what uses should be allowed on agricultural land by right.

Agritourism, as defined by Virginia code, is an activity “that allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, to view or enjoy rural activities.”

Agritourism is growing in popularity as farmers and others who own farmland seek to supplement their income.

Popular attractions include corn mazes, petting zoos, vineyard tours and pick-your own fruit and vegetable farms.

However, there is concern, particularly among local governments, that the new law may be abused by developers to bypass local zoning ordinances in order to build nonagricultural attractions, such as multiuse event centers.

Rockingham County officials say local governments across the state are trying to figure out how to bring their ordinances in line with the new law, which takes effect July 1.

At the May 28 Board of Supervisors meeting, County Attorney Tom Miller said other jurisdictions are “looking at Rockingham to [take the] lead” on clarifying the issue, because it’s the No. 1 ag-producing county in Virginia.

Miller presented supervisors with a resolution to consider expressing the county’s interpretation of the new law.

He suggests limiting the definition of agritourism operations to “bona fide production” of agricultural goods.

Owners of nonworking farms could still pursue agritourism activities, he said, but they would need to apply for special-use permits.

In addition, the proposed interpretation would not protect agritourism operations if they “substantially impact[ed] the public in a negative way,” even for bona fide agricultural operations. The supervisors at the meeting said they would evaluate the proposal and seek feedback from industry representatives.

Supervisor Fred Eberly said that the county benefits from agricultural production. “Shame on us if we alter that,” he continued.

Supervisor Bill Kyger believes that if the county doesn’t cement its interpretation of the law, then it could potentially lose the preservation of the historic battlegrounds around Cross Keys and Port Republic.

Agricultural organizations and businesses are applauding the county’s proposed interpretation of the law.

In an email Trey Davis, assistant director of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said, “I think the allowable uses that Rockingham is seeking to permit reflect the intent of the statute.”

Davis also congratulated the county on recognizing the value of agritourism and its benefits for farmers. It could help many to continue to pursue farming by diversifying their revenue streams.

Curt Hartman, owner of Bluestone Vineyard near Bridgewater, also supports the county’s decision to more narrowly define what constitutes agritourism.

“I don’t want to deprive anyone” of their ability to pursue agricultural opportunities, he said via telephone.

However, he believes that those benefiting from agritourism should be engaged “in growing, producing or distributing” agricultural products.

Miller said the county must assume that its interpretation of the law will be challenged in court.

However, he said the county’s resolution would be based on state code and case law, meaning anyone challenging Rockingham would be arguing against state-backed definitions.

Miller also said it seems that many in the private sector are recognizing that the new law does not grant a “carte blanche,” or blank check, to those seeking to conduct agritourism operations.

While Miller originally pushed for the county to adopt the proposed resolution at Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting – before the law goes into effect on July 1- the published agenda for the Wednesday assembly does
not include the proposal.

Contact Bryan Gilkerson at (540)574-6267 or bgilkerson@dnronline.com

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