Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Farmers win land-use fight; ‘food freedom’ next

By Kenric Ward  /   March 3, 2014

marthabonetaMartha Boneta, a big-spirited small farmer, calls newly enacted land-use legislation a “landmark event” that will boost agricultural entrepreneurs in Virginia.

“No Virginian should be forced to lose everything when they fight city hall,” said Boneta, who is locked in a costly legal battle with Fauquier County officials over use of her farmland.

State lawmakers sided with Boneta this year, giving farmers protection from overreaching bureaucrats.

Bills by state Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, and state Delegate Bobby Orrock, R-Thornburg, shield “agricultural operations from local regulation” and restrict government’s ability to require “special-use permits” for farm activities.

“Now farmers can farm without fear or fees,” Boneta told Watchdog.org in an interview. “It gives hope to farmers and landholders in the fight for property rights.”

Collectively dubbed the “Boneta Bill,” Senate Bill 51 and House Bill 268 cleared the General Assembly with bipartisan support and await Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s signature.

“In all my years running to Richmond for relief of some injustice, I’ve never seen a piece of legislation receive the traction and broad support,” said Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in rural Swoope, Va.

“To have Virginia agribusiness, the Farm Bureau and  VICFA (Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association), to name a few, on the same side is truly a feat for the record books.”

Boneta’s battle in Fauquier, as first reported by Watchdog, exposed inconsistent, even oppressive, local zoning and permitting rules in a state that prizes its “freedom to farm.”

“Corn mazes and pumpkin carvings were considered ‘events’ that required site plans and a mile-long list of red tape that can be suffocating,” Boneta noted.

For conducting a children’s birthday party on her Paris Barns property, Boneta was threatened with thousands of dollars in fines by Fauquier officials. She has countersued for $2 million.

The Virginia Association of Counties complains the Boneta legislation “continues the trend toward more land-use decisions being made in Richmond, rather than localities, where land-use issues are more appropriately worked out.”

Another state bill, meanwhile, strengthened landowners’ hand.

SB 578, by state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, entitles property owners to compensatory damages, and allows the award of attorney fees, upon successfully challenging the constitutionality of local land-use decisions.

Obenshain’s bill passed the House and Senate by a combined 138-1.

farmfreedomFlush with property-rights victories, small farmers vow to push farther.

Bernadette Barber, founder of Virginia Food Freedom, said, “There is an illusion that farmers are allowed to (direct) sell all their products because there are farmers markets and one-day bake sales.

“Fact is, these are exemptions” granted at the whim of government, she noted.

“I have 33 acres, with cows. If I had the ability to sell all my farm products (including raw milk) directly to the public, I could make $56,000 a year,” Barber figures.

But not under existing regulations.

With Delegate Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, Barber continues to promote a Virginia Farm Freedom Bill — an expansive measure granting production rights to home kitchens.

“Martha’s bill prevents counties from imposing a $100 fee to grow tomatoes. We would love to make spinach into spinach lasagna,” Barber told Watchdog.

The Bell initiative ran into killer opposition from the Virginia Farm Bureau and medical experts who branded it a competitive threat and a potential public-health hazard.

But Barber said Boneta’s victory opened the barn door for the blossoming farm-to-table movement.

“We don’t want to be the next Kraft or Little Debbie shop. We want local consumers to be able to shake the hands of the person who make our food,” she said.

Salatin, a national leader in the food-freedom campaign, called the Boneta bill “a sign of things to come because it means the integrity-food side is gaining clout.”

Randall Anderson, owner of Wicked Oak Farms & Vineyard, in Star Tannery, Va.,  agreed.

“I hope this adds to the momentum for recovering or protecting even more individual freedoms.”

Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau.

Contact him at kenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

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