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New legislation that goes into effect July 1 will grant farms and farm breweries in Albemarle County the ability to hold events and conduct certain economic activities without getting approval from the Board of Supervisors.
Albemarle is preparing to revise its zoning ordinances to comply with state law.
“What’s disturbing here is that the state has taken away the capacity of localities to determine what’s allowed,” said Richard Randolph, Scottsville District representative on the Planning Commission, at a work session Tuesday.
Under the new state law, counties would not be able to require a special-use permit for events or a zoning clearance for activities such as farm sales unless there is a “substantial impact on the health, safety or general welfare of the public.”
“There’s also a provision that local regulations should be reasonable and take into account the economic impact and agricultural nature of the activity,” said county planner Mandy Burbage.
However, the law offers no guidance on where the threshold for that definition might lie.
“We’ve looked to our current regulations which establish a number of thresholds that apply to agricultural uses,” Burbage said.
A brewery would need to grow at least some of its agricultural products on site. Currently, there are none in Albemarle that fit that description and county staff is unclear whether there is any interest.
Staff is recommending patterning the ordinance changes after adjustments made when a 2007 law took away the county’s ability to regulate activities at farm wineries.
“We’re on a relatively tight timeline to modify our regulations for when these laws take effect,” Burbage said.
In the case of farm wineries, weddings and other events with fewer than 200 people are allowed by-right, but a special-use permit is required if the event will exceed that amount of guests.
Under that situation, the winery also must submit a plan to address parking and traffic circulation.
The county also would likely enforce the noise ordinance as it does on events at wineries. Noise cannot exceed 60 decibels during the day and 55 decibels at night.
The current farm winery ordinance also needs to establish prohibited uses, such as the creation of restaurants and the allowance of helicopter rides.
“Since they were established, Albemarle County’s farm winery regulations have proven relatively successful in balancing the needs of farm wineries with the property rights of adjacent neighbors,” Burbage said.
The legislation was passed over the objections of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, who argued in a Jan. 30 resolution that the legislation prevents the county’s citizens from “shaping the character and development of the localities in which they reside.”
“When the General Assembly adopts these one-size-fits-all laws, they do not recognize the issues that arise in individual communities,” said Gregory Kamptner, the deputy county attorney.
Amelia McCulley, the county’s zoning director, said there have not been widespread complaints about noise despite earlier conflicts between nearby residents of one winery and one cidery.
“It was isolated around Keswick Vineyards and that was resolved privately to limit the noise level,” McCulley said. “Castle Hill Cider was a problem until they came through the special-use permit process and they modified their building to reduce the noise.”
McCulley said the county likely would impose the same restrictions for farms and farm breweries.
“The same maximum sound levels would apply and we would impose conditions related to sound monitoring and outdoor amplification,” McCulley said.
Some members of the commission expressed concern that the new law would open up the door to more economic activity in the rural area.
“What will follow in the future is obviously the distillery issue, and whiskey will be next,” Randolph said. “This is the way to work around the monopoly of the [Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] and to benefit agriculture through that.”
Randolph said he was concerned about the amount of water that would be used in these operations.
“They can extract as much as they want to,” Kamptner said. However, he added, the brewery could open itself up to legal action from neighbors.
While the county’s ability to regulate will be restricted, state agencies still would have jurisdiction.
The Virginia Department of Health needs to approve on onsite sewage systems and the Virginia Department of Transportation would need to approve any new entrances created to accommodate new uses.
A public roundtable on the ordinance change will be held in Room 241 of the County Office Building at 5:30 p.m. April 16. The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on May 6 followed by a hearing before the Board of Supervisors tentatively scheduled for June 11.