Farmers in Fauquier County are planning to bring their pitchforks to an Aug. 2 hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals to protest the arbitrary treatment of one of their own. On April 30, Zoning Administrator Kimberley Johnson sent Martha Boneta an official cease-and-desist notice for selling farm products and hosting a birthday party for her best friend's 10-year-old daughter on her 70-acre Paris, Va., farm without a special administrative permit.
Johnson threatened to fine Boneta $5,000 per violation if she did not stop the alleged unlawful activities within 30 days. In doing so, Boneta's fellow farmers say, Johnson stepped far beyond her authority. They're supporting her appeal before the BZA because they rightly fear that left unchecked, this infringement on one farmer's freedom to make a living will spread to other agricultural enterprises like a dangerous pest.
The Virginia Right to Farm Act prohibits local authorities from treating agricultural activity as a "nuisance" -- which seems to be what's happening here, since Johnson was reportedly responding to complaints from nearby residents. Boneta already had a business license the county issued her in June 2011 that allowed her to operate a "retail farm shop" on her property. Her license application specifically noted her intention to sell handspun yarns, birdhouses, soaps and other handicrafts in addition to fresh vegetables, eggs, herbs and honey.
The following month, the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors changed the classification of "farm sales" to require a special administrative permit for activities that were in compliance with the ordinance just one month before. But documents received under the Freedom of Information Act showed that Boneta is the only farmer in Fauquier County who has ever been cited -- even though the county's own website lists dozens of farms that sell similar products to end-use customers.
On July 12, supervisors voted to limit the number of visitors allowed at food- and wine-tasting events to 25, and to limit such events to two per month, even though they were warned by the county attorney and Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore that such restrictions are illegal. Virginia's growing wine industry and its small artisanal farmers contribute millions of dollars to the state economy while providing urban residents with a taste of country life. But even in picturesque Fauquier County, their future is clouded by the growing burden of capricious government regulation.