Albemarle grapples with demand for rural events

Every Wednesday evening during the summer, King Family Vineyards hosts a live band and a food truck. The event tends to attract Crozet locals, and they drink wine and catch up with friends until 8 p.m., when the vineyard starts shutting down for the night.

James King, youngest son of the family, said that they saw other wineries and breweries successfully hosting similar events and decided to start their own series. Most of the winery’s income comes from selling wine, King said, but events have helped the vineyard make the profit margin they need to stay a successful business.

“As a business grows, every year it gets harder and harder to make that extra margin, that extra dollar, so you have to get creative. Leveraging a food truck, an asset that you don’t have in-house, I think is some low-hanging fruit,” King said.

Events are a substantial and growing part of agriculture-related businesses, and Albemarle County has been updating its ordinances to keep up.

A study published in March 2017 by the Pamplin School of Business at Virginia Tech found that visitors to Virginia’s roughly 1,400 agritourism venues spent an estimated $1.5 billion on and off the farms in 2015.

The study also found recent growth in agritourism. About one-third of the farms, wineries, breweries and distilleries identified by the study had been in business for five years or less.

Albemarle updated its ordinance on May 15 to institute similar standards for farms as were already in place for wineries and breweries and is about to embark on a second phase of changes.

The goal of the updates, according to the staff report, was to both support the agricultural economy in the county’s rural areas and minimize impacts to neighbors.

The Board of Supervisors called for the changes in January after the Board of Zoning Appeals allowed Roslyn Farm & Vineyard off Hydraulic Road to host more events like farm-to-table dinners and play amplified music, despite concerns from neighbors that the owners were not doing much farming.

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Supervisor Ann H. Mallek, who lives on a farm near Earlysville with her family, said that several recent proposals sparked the board’s concern.

“If a person does not produce anything, or significant amounts so that they have to find other ways to sell it, they should not be getting the special dispensation to have events, which may have impacts on neighbors and the rural area in general,” she said.

Virginia limited the ability of counties to control “reasonable and customary” winery activities in 2007, partially because of the advocacy of James King’s father, David King. The General Assembly adopted similar protections for agricultural events in 2014.

James King said that his family has been happy to work with the county to minimize the effects of rural events on neighbors through landscaping, directing traffic, and monitoring noise.

“You know, you do have to help mitigate some of those potential friction points. It always boils down to noise and traffic. You have to be a good neighbor,” he said.

The May 15 changes affect farms wanting to hold agricultural events like farm sales, educational workshops, agricultural festivals and fundraisers that do not already have permission.

The new ordinance adds outdoor music curfews and requires that structures and activity areas be located 125 feet away from neighboring properties. To keep agriculture as the primary use of the property, the ordinance requires that the space devoted to farming be at least 5 acres.

Farms must also notify their neighbors before applying for a zoning clearance, which is required for certain levels of event regularity and attendance and for small farms hosting events. County staff reviews zoning clearance requests but can not deny them if the farm meets all the ordinance requirements.

The next phase of the agricultural events updates will define farm-to-table dinners and create a method for evaluating whether agriculture is the primary use of the property. Because it is more ambitious, Phase II will require more community engagement than Phase I, but the county has not outlined what that engagement will look like yet.