David Hannah, the county's natural resource manager Credit: Credit: Tim Dodson, Charlottesville Tomorrow

At a public meeting Wednesday evening, Albemarle County farmers told officials that increasing the size of stream buffers could endanger their livelihoods.

White Hall farmer Kathy Rash and several others expressed fears that the county would require farmers to maintain a 100-foot buffer on each side of rivers, perennial streams and intermittent streams. Agriculture, horticulture and forestry uses currently are exempt from the county’s stream buffers ordinance, and no changes to existing policies have been proposed.

“There is nobody that loves our land more than we do,” Rash said. “Please do not put us out of business — there are many of us that have streams that go through our property and there is no way that a 100-foot buffer on either side can allow me to have cows to graze in certain areas, so please keep in mind the agricultural people in this county.”

The meeting was part of a public engagement process initiated in April following a Board of Supervisors decision earlier this year to direct county staff to gather public input on the existing stream buffer requirements and how they are implemented.

“County staff at this point is not making any recommendations,” David Hannah, Albemarle’s natural resource manager, emphasized at the beginning of the meeting. “We are gathering information.”

So far, the information-gathering process has included a survey sent out through the county’s A-Mail email list, as well as three stakeholder meetings with members of the farming, forestry, development, business and conservation communities.

“We are going to have a work session with the Board of Supervisors later this year, probably in December, where we will tell them what we found out here in this process,” Hannah said. “We will probably put some options in front of them about directions they may want to take — or not take. There’s no guarantee that changes are going to be recommended or made.”

County Planning Commission member Karen Firehock tried to address some of the farmers’ concerns about the buffers. In general, 100-foot buffers are required in the rural and development areas of the county, although agriculture and forestry uses do not have to follow the 100-foot requirement.

Firehock said state law limits the county’s ability to regulate buffers near agricultural and forestry operations.

She also noted the 100-foot buffer serves an important purpose in other places.

“Some of you guys probably think that’s a bureaucratic number that’s a nice round number, but it actually has to do with monitoring the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment — which are the three pollutants of concern to the [Chesapeake] Bay,” she said. “It turns out that that’s the width of vegetation that cleans most of that runoff.”

Dave Norford, a farmer in Albemarle, said if there are revisions made to stream buffer rules, he does not want the county to adopt a “one-size-fits-all” solution and wants decisions to be made with “common sense.”

“Most of the farmland in Albemarle County is farmed not by the person who owns it, but by a farmer who leases the property, so if you put regulations on that land, the landowner is not going to be inclined to want to spend a lot of money to establish a stream buffer,” Norford said. “He’s going to say, ‘Forget it, I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

Some other attendees of Wednesday’s meeting said farmers already put a great deal of care into their land and that they thought erosion and sediment issues were a bigger issue in the county’s urban areas due to runoff from impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots.

“I wish there was some way for those of us living in the rural area to actually divorce the urban people making our regulations,” one man said, before receiving applause from some attendees. “I wish we could have a county that was rural.”

Lonnie Murray, an elected official who represents Albemarle County on the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, said he takes issue with property owners who may be exploiting regulatory exemptions granted to certain kinds of land uses.

“A big problem that we have in the area are what I call ‘faux-farms,’” Murray said. “We have these people that come in and exploit these agricultural loopholes so they can develop a piece of property.”

“We need to close these loopholes, and we need to make sure that if someone says they are doing agriculture, they better be doing agriculture,” he said. “If someone says they are doing forestry, they better be doing forestry — and if they are not, they should be following the guidelines that we have on the books.”

Other speakers described erosion and runoff issues they had witnessed or were aware of and called for officials to make sure best management practices are being followed.

Hannah said the county likely will hold another public meeting in October.