By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
WARRENTON — Farmers and tea party activists bearing wooden pitchforks and waving bright “Don’t Tread on Me” flags may have lost the battle to bureaucrats in Fauquier County, but they’re determined to win the war.
The county’s Board of Zoning Appeals in a standing-room-only meeting on Thursday upheld a zoning administrator’s decision that Paris farmer Martha Boneta must pay hundreds of dollars in fines for selling farm products and hosting events such as a 10-year-old’s birthday party on her property without proper permits.
The county’s action has angered locals, who call it an abuse of government power that contradicts the Virginia Right to Farm Act.
Mark Fitzgibbons, a founder of Fauquier County Citizens for Family Farms, which advocates for family farms’ rights, said he plans to to file Freedom of Information Act requests to carry the fight forward.
Rick Buchanan, of the Fauquier County Tea Party, said the focus will be on BZA administrator Kim Johnson.
“One of the things we want to discover is how other farmers and non-farmers in Fauquier County have been treated by Ms. Johnson, and we will be filing FOIA requests soon,” Buchanan said.
“Fauquier wants us to go through the system they created, and we’re not,” Fitzgibbons told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau. “… Today is just the beginning.”
That beginning was a memorable one, as adults and even children voiced their support for Boneta and disgust with Johnson.
The protesters chanted, “One, two, three, four, send Johnson out the door!” And “two, four, six, eight, Johnson makes us all irate!” ahead of the meeting. And they crowded the front of the county building, garnering both curious and uneasy glances from county employees.
Johnson was not available for comment Friday, but Andrew Hashour, the county’s assistant chief of zoning and development services, said the county has no intention of fining Boneta the $15,000 total it could if Boneta continued her work without permits, for the three citations she was issued.
The county can only impose $200 fines per violation every two months, Hashour said.
“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty, we have never leveled that big of a fine against anybody, and we are not likely to,” he told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau on Friday.
Hashour said Boneta has roughly 30 to 45 days to make an appeal at Fauquier County Circuit Court.
Boneta’s attorney, Michelle Rosati, declined to comment Thursday as to what the next legal step will be. Boneta stayed out of the hearing.
“We feel very strongly that the law is on our side,” Rosati told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
The fracas in Fauquier started with a neighbor’s complaint after Boneta invited Robin Verity’s daughter, Gwenny Verity, to have her 10-year birthday party on Boneta’s farm.
“We were actually shocked when we heard the whole to-do, that anyone would object to Martha inviting my daughter to her farm to have a party,” a passionate Robin Verity told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
“Being at the farm and being in a different environment than I’m used to is nice, and being with our friend Martha is nice because she’s always kind and gives us produce and everything,” Gwenny added.
The county in April cited Boneta for a series of alleged violations, including selling homegrown food and crafts like candles on her property without the appropriate license.
Johnson said Thursday that the county issues citations based on complaints.
“We don’t always cite for everything,” she said. “… That’s how it works.”
Boneta had obtained a county-approved business license for a “retail farm shop” in June 2011. A month after that, the county Board of Supervisors approved an amendment that restricted farm sales. And that’s when county staffers came after Boneta.
Hashour, who said it was “good to see the public’s participation” on Thursday, said county staffers don’t intend to go after local farmers.
“For us, it goes on as being sort of business as usual,” he said. “We’re not actively going to go after anybody.”
Hashour said the whole thing could be cleared up if Boneta purchased a $150 farm sales permit.
But Rosati and advocates of farmers’ rights say it isn’t about a permit.
“I don’t believe that ‘what’s the big deal, it’s only a permit,’ justifies regulation,” Rosati said Thursday. “Not in this case. Not ever.”
“I shouldn’t have to look to the government to be able to afford a living, other for them to stop taxing me,” said Lois Smith, vice president of the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, a group that fights for farming rights at the state and local level.
Smith and others cited the Virginia Right to Farm Act, which says, “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.”
Smith said this case matters not just to Boneta or small farmers, but to everyone.
“If you do not support your good, small farmers, then you will not have good food for good health,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”