Albemarle adopts new rules to allow events at farms

Albemarle is now in compliance with a state law that restricts the ability of localities to regulate events at farms and farm breweries, despite a concern from some that the new rules conflict with the county’s policy to protect the rural area from development.

“We’re concerned this regulation will lead to exploitation of minimal agricultural activity so as to establish non-agricultural commercial venues in the rural area,” said Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing farms and farm breweries to hold events and perform other activities to help increase their revenues. The law mirrors a 2007 bill which cleared the way for farm wineries to hold events such as weddings on their property.

“The code now limits local regulations to activities that have substantial impact on public health, safety and welfare and requires that regulations be reasonable and take into account the economic impact of the regulations on the operation,” said county planner Amanda Burbage at a public hearing Wednesday.

County staff members have been working since March to develop ordinance changes that balance the state law with Albemarle’s conservation policies.

Since 1980, the county’s Comprehensive Plan has sought to limit economic activities that can occur in the 95 percent of Albemarle designated as rural.

Farms — referred to as “agricultural operations” under the law — must receive a “zoning clearance” if events or farm sales generate more than 50 vehicle trips a day, if the property is less than 21 acres, or if amplified music is planned.

“Zoning clearances really serve as a means for staff to educate the property owner about the county’s standards and verify compliance with our ordinance requirements,” Burbage said. “Provided these requirements are met, staff do not have the discretion to deny a zoning clearance.”

Farm operators need to obtain a special use permit if they want to have events with more than 200 attendees, if new structures are built to accommodate events or farm sales are larger than 4,000 square feet, or if the operators want to have more than 24 events a year.

Zoning clearances are handled by county staff and cost $50. Special use permits must be approved by the Board of Supervisors, and the process costs $2,000.

The zoning inspection also would have to determine whether the agricultural operation is a bona fide operation by measuring it against as many as 13 criteria. However, the property owner would not be required to file any documents as part of this process.

“If they decide they don’t want to provide information and the zoning administrator can’t determine that they’re engaged in an agricultural operation, then they don’t get the benefits of promoting their events or activities,” said Greg Kamptner, the deputy county attorney.

Farm breweries will be able to hold events but must obtain a special use permit if they will exceed 200 attendees at any one time. Operators also must get a one-time “zoning clearance” if they plan on having outdoor amplified music.

There are currently no farm breweries in Albemarle.

One representative of the wine industry said she was concerned the process would be too onerous, especially to vineyards that do not make their own wine.

“It is a little confusing when you’re looking through this,” said Katie Hellebush, executive director of the Virginia Wine Council. “We want to make sure this is clear to everyone who is reading this on what they need to do.”

One farmer thought the threshold of 50 vehicle trips a day should be higher.

“One of the realities of selling meat on a farm is that most cars only have one buyer in them,” said Colin Huff of Gryffon’s Aerie. “It might be a benefit to the rural economy to get the vehicle numbers [up]. I think any farm would be happy to have 200 customers but they’re not going to get that with [that restriction].”

Some supervisors were concerned the language in the legislation was too hard to understand.

Supervisors considered holding off on passage of the new ordinance, but eventually decided to proceed after more than an hour of debate.

“I’m ready to move forward with approving this so there is some bit of certainty for the farmers in the community,” said Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd.

The vote to amend the ordinance was 5-1 with Supervisor Jane Dittmar voting no.

“Whether or not I’m a farmer, I would probably need to seek legal advice on how to comply with this,” Dittmar said.

The new regulations are effective immediately.

Amelia McCulley, the county’s zoning administrator, said it was likely the ordinance will have to be amended in the near future.

“We’re going to have to see how it goes,” McCulley said. “We might have to come back and tweak it.”