Albemarle seeks input on changing rules for rural businesses

Albemarle County’s rural countryside may soon see an increased number of events at breweries, wineries and agricultural farms.

A recent roundtable discussion hosted by the county brought together about 35 community members, business owners and advocates to hash through how to mitigate negative impacts and ensure positive outcomes from recent changes to Virginia law.

As of July 1, state code will allow farm breweries and agricultural operations to hold “usual and customary activities” that previously needed a special-use permit from the county unless “there is a substantial impact on public health, safety and welfare.”

The roundtable provided an opportunity for county staff and community members to clarify the implications.

“The state doesn’t define what that ‘substantial impact’ is,” said Amanda Burbage, senior planner for the county. “It is sort of left to the localities to decide that.”

The county dealt with a similar change in the state code related to wineries.

“In 2010, Albemarle County modified its farm winery regulation in response to changes in the state code, similar to the provisions being discussed tonight,” Burbage said. “Since the regulations have changed, we’ve seen an increase in farm wineries, and yet we have not seen a corresponding increase in complaints.”

Concerns were raised about the possible changes to rural character of the countryside, traffic and roads, sound, water and sanitation.

In addition to developing a definition for substantial impact, the group worked to generate a list of usual and customary activities for farm breweries, wineries and agricultural operations.

The list includes harvest festivals, farm stores and markets, historic reenactments and farm-to-table dinners, among many others.

“I think it is very helpful to have a list,” said Morgan Butler, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center. “The more we can nail down uses ahead of time, it gives land owners certainty, it reduces confusion … and it reduces the amount of litigation for the county.”

“It seems as though we’re trying to determine the legislature’s intent to provide guidance for zoning,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum. “I think by design the legislature left it vague.”

“There are a lot of things on [the list] that are completely unrelated to farming at all,” said county Supervisor Ann H. Mallek. “[Usual and customary] has something to do with what is produced there.”

Additionally, the county proposed that land parcels fewer than five acres and events greater than 200 people would require a special-use permit. These proposed restrictions also brought up concerns.

“You can only park so many cars on a five-acre lot,” said Jeff Werner, of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “I’m leaning towards more of the impact than the location and use.”

“We used five acres because that is the minimum you need to apply for land-use taxation,” said Amelia McCulley, the county’s director of zoning.

Discussion about how to define the specifics in an ordinance revealed the complexity of the task. One resident pointed out potential safety issues between events and farm activity.

“I believe in the state of Virginia, 14-year-olds can drive trucks up and down the road on farms,” said county resident David van Roijen. “You have to realize how much this is impacting what is going on on the farm.”

“The changes that we’re proposing this evening are really just a starting point,” Burbage said.

County staff will continue taking suggestions while they further develop draft ordinances. The Planning Commission’s next work session to discuss the changes is set for May 13.