Counties Prepare for New Farm Zoning Rules

Shenandoah Valley counties will lose much oversight over a range of commercial events and sales on local farms on July 1, when new state rules on agritourism zoning go into effect.

Senate Bill 51, introduced in 2014 by state Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford), passed both houses nearly unanimously and was signed by Governor McAuliffe in March, despite strong opposition from some of the top farm counties in the state, including Rockingham.

The legislation bans restrictions on farm sales and activities unless the local government can demonstrate a “substantial impact on the health, safety or general welfare of the public.” It also bans restrictions on activities that are “usual and customary at Virginia agricultural operations.”

However, the legislation does not define these vague terms, leaving local governments to comb through existing ordinances to determine if changes are needed to conform with the new rules.

Shenandoah Valley Network will assist our local partners, Shenandoah Forum and Rockingham Community Alliance for Preservation (CAP), is looking for ways to meet the mandates while retaining adequate local authority over potential land use conflicts.

The agritourism legislation aims to increase farm income by streamlining local zoning rules. However, the terms are so broad as to allow nearly any commercial activity on agricultural land, with little connection to the farm’s production and without consideration for potential conflicts with neighboring landowners. That, in turn, could actually erode local and regional farm vitality over time through over-commercializing of working lands.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will continue managing an On-Farm Activities Working Group to address these issues. Chaired in 2013 by then VDACs Commissioner Matt Lohr of Broadway, the group met repeatedly in summer 2013 without agreeing on an approach to address on-farm sales and events.

SB 51 was endorsed by two major stakeholders in the working group, the Virginia State Farm Bureau and the Virginia Agribusiness Council. It was opposed by others, including the Virginia Association of Counties and  Rockingham County.

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Posted in Right To Farm Laws