Besides the obvious, what’s the difference between a barn full of cows and a barn full of wedding guests? Albemarle County is trying to pin down the answer in the wake of a state code change by the General Assembly that aimed to make it easier for farm owners to hold events. But a month after the new rule went into effect, the county still hasn’t settled on a rewrite of its own regulations, and is facing a showdown over just how much say government officials should have in how farms generate revenue.
The state code now reads that localities can only require farms, farm wineries, and farm breweries to get the above-and-beyond permission of a special use permit or zoning clearance in circumstances where an event poses “a substantial impact on the health, safety, or general welfare of the public.” Since such permits come with a $2,500 price tag in Albemarle, it’s a move that could save landowners a lot of money.
The effect, however, is a lot of gray area to clear up for local governments: What’s a substantial impact? And a far more basic question—and dicey one—what counts as a farm? Thanks to Virginia’s restrictive rules about local government power, the county is in the precarious and familiar position of trying to regulate without running afoul of more permissive rules from above.
“I think a lot of localities are either pulling their hair out over it right now, or not dealing with it, even though it went into effect July 1,” said Amanda Burbage, a senior planner with the county’s Department of Community Development. “It’s sort of a Pandora’s box. We want to walk that fine line of anticipating what could come up without squelching the kind of agricultural activity we want to see.”
Albemarle’s been to this dance before, though. It hashed out a special set of rules to cover events at farm wineries four years ago, a process that included lots of input from local wineries and led to a set of rules most parties agreed they could live with.
The new regulations the county has drawn up build on those. At farm breweries and agricultural operations, just as at farm wineries, events—weddings, festivals—attracting 200 or fewer people at a time would be by-right, meaning no special permission would be needed. The same would go for agritourism activities and retail sales on farms that generate 50 or fewer car trips a day and happen on plots five acres or smaller. Zoning clearance would be needed to play amplified music, and events that draw more than 200 people would still require a special use permit.
The definitions are proving a little trickier. Defining a farm brewery is challenging because there are so few, said Burbage—Albemarle has none—and making beer is really more of an industrial process than an agricultural one.
Putting a fine point on what exactly constitutes a farm, however, may prove the real sticking point. Right now, the draft ordinance drawn up by the county says it’s “any operation devoted to the bona fide production” of agricultural products. That’s not enough for Albemarle County Supervisor Ann Mallek, who said she’s worried about the county losing its leverage when it comes to regulating in the rural area.
The White Hall rep firmly believes the language should go further, possibly by requiring landowners to show that more than half their revenues come from agriculture, or by showing they file taxes as a farm. And while she wants to make it easier and cheaper for farms to hold real agritourism events, she said they shouldn’t be given carte blanche.
“The essential starting point for me is a separation between agriculture and entertainment,” she said, and officials keep tripping over the line. “To me, it has to be related to the farming operations.” Picking pumpkins, a corn maze—those are acceptable uses, she said, “because you’re growing it on the farm. You’re not growing weddings, and you’re not growing music festivals.”
That kind of parsing of language doesn’t sit well with Irvin White, who raises beef cows in Stony Point and chairs the Albemarle County Farm Bureau.
“Everybody gets worried about the legalese,” he said.
The 50 car trips a day in particular bothers him. That’s 25 cars coming and going, he said, a threshold he’d hit even with the low-key farm visits he organizes for local students.
“The more rules you write, the more ways there are around the rules,” said White, and that means more work for a bigger local government. “There will be certain people out there that this hits. Who they are yet, I don’t know,” he said. “It all comes down to whether they’re going to enforce it.”
Mallek said the county wants farms to prosper, and that Albemarle was doing well at balancing economic freedom and oversight until the state pulled the rug out from under them. If agricultural operations aren’t subject to careful zoning laws, she said, “there’s very little chance for public input.”
Now it’s up to her and her fellow supervisors to rework the draft ordinance delivered to them by the Planning Commission, a process that will start in early September. For farmers and for local government, she said, “the stakes are very high.”—With reporting by Chase Gunter