Albemarle taking its time updating farm event rules

Albemarle County is taking a cautious approach to comply with a state mandate to allow farms to conduct additional activities to make their businesses more viable.

A law passed by the General Assembly that takes effect July 1 prevents localities from regulating events at “agricultural operations” unless they would have “a substantial impact on the health, safety, or general welfare of the public.”

“The General Assembly has decided this is the new direction for agriculture in Virginia,” said Greg Kamptner, deputy county attorney.

However, the law leaves it up to counties to define what the threshold for regulation might be. The legislation also cautions local governments that restrictions must be “reasonable” and must be balanced in favor of promoting economic activity.

The Albemarle Planning Commission was first briefed on the matter in late March, and various stakeholders in the community held a roundtable in April.

Since then, staff has proposed patterning the county’s new rules after those for farm wineries, which underwent their own deregulation following General Assembly action in 2007.

Farm wineries must apply for a special-use permit if they want to have events exceeding 200 people. This gives neighbors an opportunity to speak up about potential threats to their quality of life and staff time to assess impacts on traffic, the watershed and public safety.

“So far, this attendance threshold appears to be working well at farm wineries,” said county planner Amanda Burbage.

Several speakers at a recent work session asked the commission to protect the character of the rural area from the impacts of new commercial uses.

Marcia Joseph, a former planning commissioner, said she has lived in the rural area for 20 years and moved there knowing there would be a lower level of county services.

“I know it’s going to take longer for fire trucks and the rescue squad, and my water and sewer is my responsibility,” Joseph said. “I’d ask you to protect my health, safety and welfare.”

However, representatives of wineries and cideries said they welcomed the new activities.

“On-farm activities both for farmers, wineries and who knows what will be the next permutation of this [are] the wave of the future of agriculture in the commonwealth,” said David King of King Family Vineyards. (King’s son Carrington is on the board of directors of Charlottesville Tomorrow.)

Charlotte Shelton of Albemarle Ciderworks said the new rules are needed to keep land in agricultural use.

“We have an apple orchard, but the apple orchard would not pay for itself without what we’re doing with the apples and our ability to see what we make from the apples on site,” Shelton said.

Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council urged the commission to make sure the county defines bona fide agricultural operations to close potential loopholes.

“What you are all here to address is what triggers the need for a special-use permit for an activity or an event on a rural property,” Werner said. “When does true bona fide agriculture become non-agricultural commercial activity?”

“Bona fide means good faith,” Kamptner said. “It has to be a legitimate agricultural operation. [The land] has to be devoted to it and it has to be the primary use in order to be eligible to have these various activities.”

Commissioner Timothy Keller said he was concerned about the potential for traffic congestion on rural roads.

“There’s the potential through this for significant numbers of events,” Keller said. “I appreciate the comment that the nature of agriculture is changing … but I think it would be good to think about what these possible numbers are.”

Keller suggested lowering the threshold to 50 attendees for special-use permits for agricultural operations.

“This is not like we’re doing super levels of regulation,” Keller said. “We’re talking about what [triggers] the need for a special-use permit and what doesn’t.”

Another commissioner thought that would be over-regulation.

“I don’t think we need to go into the realm of asking special-use permits for everything,” said Tom Loach.

The current ordinance allows rural properties to have special events with as many as 150 people 24 times a year by special-use permit. Panorama Farms was allowed to extend that number to 200 when its permit was approved by the Board of Supervisors in June 2012.

“The current ordinance does not explicitly allow events associated with ‘farms’ by-right,” Amelia McCulley, the county’s zoning director, said in an email. “It only explicitly allows events associated with farm wineries. We’re addressing this with the current ordinance work.”

Wayne Cilimberg, Albemarle’s director of planning, said the county could make adjustments in the future.

“You take the best shot realizing you may need to revisit,” Cilimberg said.

Though a localities’ ability to regulate events is restricted, state agencies will be the primary authority. For instance, the Virginia Department of Transportation must approve any commercial entrance that has more than 50 trips a day.

The Planning Commission will hold another work session on the matter June 24 and a public hearing July 15, followed by a Board of Supervisors decision in August.