Some Albemarle County farmers hoping to hold large events on their properties or use agritourism to make money soon may have to get a zoning clearance.
The Planning Commission voted unanimously earlier this week to require farms with 21 or fewer acres to get approval from the county before they can hold events exceeding a certain number of people.
“It would behoove us to have the largest percentage of people, those considering going into agritourism in a significant manner, to have to come to the county and see what they are getting into,” said Commissioner Timothy Keller.
The change is in response to state legislation that went into effect July 1 that grants farms and farm breweries the ability to hold events and conduct certain economic activities without getting special permission, unless “there is a substantial impact on public health, safety and welfare.”
Albemarle is revising its zoning ordinances to comply with state law, and the Planning Commission voted Tuesday to subject breweries to the same rules that apply to wineries.
Wineries that hold events with more than 200 people are required to obtain a special-use permit, and under the proposed ordinance, new wineries would have to get a zoning clearance, which is approval from county zoning administrators on whether the property is feasible for events or for outdoor amplified music.
Agricultural operations with 21 or fewer acres will have to receive a zoning clearance if there is outdoor amplified music or if there are 50 or more vehicle trips per day occurring on the sites for agritourism, events or retail sales.
Agricultural operations that are more than 4,000 square feet, events with more than 200 people or farms that hold more than 24 events per year of any size will have to get a special-use permit.
County staff had said they wanted the rule for agricultural operations to be for five or fewer acres, but commissioners said that would not cover enough farms.
One person who spoke at the public input session said the new rules would create an extra challenge for farmers.
“I was surprised the Planning Commission chose to change the ordinance significantly last night … The change more than doubles the number of parcels impacted by the regulation,” Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a local business advocacy group, said in an interview Wednesday. “I think the larger acreage requirement is beyond what’s needed.”
But Commissioner Karen Firehock said during the meeting that making farmers get a zoning clearance, which costs $50, would benefit them.
“I don’t find the need to come in for a conversation with staff … to be particularly onerous,” Firehock said. “I think for a lot of people getting into agritourism these will be new issues for them, so I think that it’s a helpful thing.”
Williams also said he would have liked the Planning Commission to allow the public to weigh in on the change in acreage before the panel voted.
Instead, it was determined at Tuesday’s meeting, after guidance from the deputy county attorney, that the additional hearing would not be necessary.
There also was a concern expressed from commissioners over how the number of farms would be tracked.
“I still also would like to see a tracking mechanism here,” said Commissioner Richard Randolph. “I think it’s a major deficit in what’s proposed that the county does not have a means to keep track of how many of these businesses are operational in the rural areas, and we should have a handle on that as planning commission.”
The proposed ordinance next will be reviewed at a work session of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors on Sept 3.