By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
The “Martha Boneta Bill” would curb local government’s authority to penalize farmers who sell farm-related items on their own property.
Though state law permits farmers to market produce on-site, Fauquier County officials last year slapped farm operator Martha Boneta with a series of $5,000 fines for selling fruit, vegetables and handicrafts.
Officials said Boneta failed to obtain the proper permits for her activities. Boneta maintained that she had all the necessary licenses, and, after months of legal wrangling, sued the county for $2 million in damages.
She has since closed her farm, saying she could no longer operate under the county’s conditions. Boneta was not available to comment about the bill.
Lingamfelter, a Woodbridge lawmaker who is seeking the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, said, “Martha Boneta’s rights have been wrongly challenged.”
“I am bringing legislation so small farmers like Martha will enjoy fully their property rights. It’s not about demonizing anyone in this controversy. It’s about standing by property rights and our Founder’s vision.”
House Bill 1430 would expand the definition of agricultural operations to include the commerce of farm-to-business and farm-to-consumer sales.
The marketing of certain items — such as art, literature, artifacts, furniture, food, beverages and other items “incidental to the agricultural operation, and constitute less than a majority amount of production or sales, or less than a majority of annual revenues from such sales” — is included.
Further, Lingamfelter’s bill gives people engaged in agricultural operations “a cause of action” against the county or any official or employee of the county for violations of the Right to Farm Act.
Targeting Fauquier officials, the bill asserts retroactively that “any ordinance directed at persons, property or activity on land that is zoned agricultural or silvicultural that seeks to restrict free speech or the right to assembly, among other rights, is null and void.”
In addition to being fined $5,000 for hosting a child’s birthday party on her property, Boneta and her 68-acre Liberty Farm was also charged by the county with two additional violations with up to $5,000 fines apiece –- one for advertising a pumpkin carving and another for operating a small on-site shop to sell her fresh produce and handmade crafts.
By amending the state’s 31-year-old Right to Farm Act to include the byproducts of farm produce and the sale of items incidental to farming, Lingamfelter said his bill “ensures that government officials cannot take action to restrict or prevent the citizens from engaging in commerce.”
“In November of this year, over 74 percent of Virginians voted to strengthen property rights by amending the Constitution of Virginia. Just as that amendment will protect Virginian’s against overreaching governments (by restricting the use of eminent-domain proceedings), House Bill 1430 will ensure that no government official, elected or appointed, will restrict the right to property that our Founding Fathers, many of whom were Virginia farmers, held as inherent and sacred,” Lingamfelter said.
Fauquier officials disputed Lingamfelter’s interpretation. In a statement issued late Thursday, county officials said:
“Ms. Boneta has always been allowed to sell the goods produced on the farm and has never been told she needed to shut down.
“Rather, Ms. Boneta was cited for expanding her sales to include other people’s farm products and ‘crafts’ not produced on-site or from her own agricultural products. This expanded level of sales requires an Administrative Permit, a one-time $150 permit issued once it is confirmed that there is safe ingress-egress with a safe area for parking off of the road.”
Fauquier officials said the administrative permit policy – which was changed last year – actually gives farmers “more flexibility in selling their farm products,” and that Boneta merely had to apply for the new permit to comply with local statutes.
The Virginia Independent Consumers & Farmers Association isn’t buying the county’s explanation.
Ed Ely, a VICFA board member and farmer in Roseland, alleged that Fauquier officials were under the sway of “political wannabes who find it entertaining to annoy landowners who actually work their own land.”
Accusing the county of “Gestapo-style tactics,” Ely said Boneta’s battle with local officials reflects the “urban-rural tension” found throughout much of Northern Virginia.
“There’s a basic lack of knowledge about agriculture,” he said.
Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]