By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — Fauquier County officials are threatening a local farmer with a series of $5,000 fines for selling fruits and vegetables on her farm.
With a Zoning Board hearing scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday, pitchforks are coming out at what fellow farmers call an abuse of government power.
The county cited Martha Boneta, who operates the 68-acre Liberty Farm, in April for a series of alleged violations, including selling homegrown food and homemade craft items without a proper license.
But Boneta had obtained a county-approved business license for a “retail farm shop” in June 2011.
A month later, the county Board of Supervisors approved an amendment that restricted “farm sales,” and county staffers, acting on complaints from Boneta’s neighbors, issued a citation.
Zoning Board administrator Kim Johnson told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau that she could not discuss the case, because “it is a quasi-judicial matter pending before the” Board of Zoning Appeals.
She did not respond to questions about Boneta’s permit or the complaints.
Boneta, however, isn’t submitting quietly. She retained an attorney to appeal the case, and her cause has become a rallying cry for fellow farmers. Neither Boneta nor her attorney, Michelle Rosati of the Holland & Knight law firm, were available for comment.
Rose Lawhorne, treasurer of the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, said the state’s Right to Farm law “precludes the enactment of any ordinance which would require a special exception or special permit.”
“The selling of agricultural produce grown on-site is not a use itself, but is incidental to and associated with agricultural production which is specifically permitted on the property,” said Lawhorne, a Spotsylvania County resident.
The Virginia Right to Farm Act declares: “No county, city or town shall enact zoning ordinances which would unreasonably restrict or regulate farm structures or farming and forestry practices in an agricultural district or classification.”
But the law also allows localities latitude to impose “restrictions” to “protect the health, safety and general welfare of citizens.”
Mark Fitzgibbons, a founder of Fauquier County Citizens for Family Farms, which advocates for protecting the rights of family farms, said the county’s action against Boneta was spawned by a neighbor who complained about “a pumpkin-carving contest and a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls.” He said neither event drew more than 20 people.
VICFA, of which Boneta is a member, supports the Right to Farm Act and says its mission is “to promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade that fosters availability of locally grown or home-produced food products.”
With the number of small farmers gradually rising in Virginia, VICFA members say local and state authorities are tightening rules.
“Government is getting so intrusive. It’s all about regulation,” VICFA president Wayne Bolton said from his Farmville farm.
Boneta was selling homemade beeswax candles, jars of honey and other homegrown items for $5 or less.
Lawhorne asserted, “If a county-level government zoning administration can pass ordinances on small family farms that supersede state law, we’re all in trouble.”
Rick Buchanan, a Fauquier County Tea Party activist, added, “This is a classic case of bureaucratic overreach.”
“The Virginia Right to Farm Act says it’s a right to sell food off your farm,” he said. The law protects sales activities at Liberty Farm, he said.
Buchanan, who is helping to organize a protest outside the Warren
ton offices where the Zoning Board meets, says Boneta’s case illustrates potentially larger concerns.
“What’s next? Will Fauquier employ the use of drones to verify that your backyard barbecue is legal?”