Written by Rick Buchanan
If you own a farm here in Fauquier you are “special”. If you own a farm here in Fauquier you are now, after July 14, 2011, being treated in a “special” way. You are now so “special” that if you have a working farm that is being farmed by you to make a living, before you can sell a tomato from your garden or an egg from your chicken or a bale of hay from your field over your fence, you must obtain an Administrative Special Permit. Without this special permit you run the risk if being cited and fined up to $5,000.00 for that tomato sale. This is what makes you so “special” here in the beautiful farming country of Fauquier.
Last Thursday the Fauquier County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) conducted a hearing to enforce several “violations” committed by a farm in Paris Virginia. If you are a farmer, if you are attempting to make a living from your farm and if you conduct retail sales or tours on your own farm, this is a hearing that you need to be aware of. It would appear farmer-friendly Fauquier ain’t so friendly anymore.
For those who were not watching, the "Farm Sales" use category identified by Section 3-318.21 of the Fauquier County Zoning Ordinance was added to the Fauquier County Zoning Ordinance through approval of a text amendment by the Board of Supervisors on July 14, 2011. This means if you sell ANYTHING on your farm to an “end user”, you must obtain an Administrative Special Permit. Evidently any prior permit or license you had to sell the hard work produced on your farm now means nothing. You have to start over. That is what this Paris farmer is being told. You see, they obtained a business license issued by Fauquier County for a "retail farm shop" use in June of 2011. If you have a business license to sell your tomatoes, etc., issued before July 14th, it will mean nothing if the ruling of the Zoning Commissioner against this Paris farmer is allowed to stand.
If you think this does not exactly feel right and there “ought to be a law” to protect farmers from this kind of Big Brother overstep, you are correct. Virginia's Right to Farm laws, Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-300 et. seq., preclude the enactment of any ordinance which would require a special exception or special permit for production agriculture activities in agriculturally zoned areas. Kimberly Johnson, Zoning Administrator, judge and jury for zoning matters in the county, disagrees. She has stated that it is her belief that state farm laws do not apply here in Fauquier farm country.
As you might well imagine, there are several farmer groups weighing in on this blatant disregard for personal property rights. In letters sent to Kimberly Johnson, who brought forward this action, The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund stated “Fauquier County needs to be supporting sustainable farms, not trying to make it more difficult for them to remain in business.” The Foundation for Land and Liberty wrote “I have visited the farm and reviewed the operations (on the farm) and do not see that your position is supported by the facts or the intent of the law. Farming implies that a producer be able to sell his product, free of the dictates of local and even state law as long as there is no threat to the public health or safety.”
The Rutherford Institute, in a three page legal argument against this ruling, included this paragraph: “Please be aware that The Rutherford Institute takes a serious interest in this case from a civil liberties perspective, as it involves basic rights that must be treated with proper respect from all levels of government. In our view, it is a tyrannical authority that would interfere with a private landowner’s right to merely sell products of agriculture undertaken on the property itself - especially in light of the fact that similar activities are permitted on other properties throughout the county. In the words of James Madison ‘The rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated. The personal right to acquire property, which is a natural right, gives to property, when acquired, a right to protection, as a social right.’”
I looked up the Fauquier County Zoning Ordinance on the County website and found this reasoning for its existence: Zoning regulations are “designed to assist in the protection and preservation of the agricultural uses and to mitigate land use conflicts between agricultural uses and appropriately limited residential development.” And from the ‘Purpose and Intent of the Zoning Ordinance’ I found this: “To protect the agricultural areas, recognizing their importance to the economic base” and “to create and maintain conditions under which people and their environment can exist in a productive and enjoyable harmony”.
It would appear Ms. Johnson, the BZA and the Board of Supervisors might do well to review the real purpose of the zoning laws and possibly take heed of one of our founders. It is also imperative that the Piedmont Environmental Council come to the aid of farmers here in Fauquier. They certainly are aware of this case as they had representatives at the hearing.
In closing, I could not help but be reminded of fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, known as the champion of the farmer. His farm, Monticello, still stands today and if you go there you can still purchase products from the land he worked. (I wonder if his farm is required to have an administrative special permit to sell what is produced on his 200+ year old farm.) Jefferson once said “Most bad government has grown out of too much government.” I believe this might be the case here in Fauquier.