Senate Bill 51 sounded like a no brainer – a way to help farmers and promote agritourism, but it turns out that measure and a similar one approved by the House could make life miserable for people who live near farms that invite people to pick their own fruit, wander through corn mazes or take part in pumpkin carving competitions.
Senate Bill 51 prevents counties from regulating the noise and traffic generated by such events.
When State Senator Richard Stuart offered his agritourism bill, it sounded reasonable. He proposed getting rid of unnecessary regulations that keep farmers from hosting events and selling products on their land.
“You’re inviting people in to see what you’re doing. It’s really good, clean, wholesome fun for children and families. These farmers can charge a little bit of money for that, help make the property productive.”
Those events can be fun for guests but miserable for the neighbors. Judith Sommers and her husband retired to a horse farm in Albemarle County in 2001. They loved the peace and quiet, but in 2008 the state cleared the way for wineries, breweries and cideries to hold as many special events at they wanted, and in 2010 one of Sommers’ neighbors did just that – hosting huge parties every weekend.
“It could be Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, Sunday afternoon, Saturday afternoon. We never knew when to expect it, and there were times when it would be louder than others. One weekend it would be country music, the next weekend Bruce Springsteen.”
Sommers and her neighbors took their complaints to the county, which imposed a limit on the volume of music. The cidery ended up enclosing its barn and air conditioning the place – so music can be loud, while guests and the neighbors stay cool.
It was a win for everyone, so county supervisor Ann Mallek was dismayed to learn that the state is pushing county government aside – making it unnecessary for rural party sites to get special permits for events.
“I don’t see that there is a need to get involved in that process. To have a bill which says local government is not allowed to be involved is a real problem. The neighbors now have no rights.”
Mallek is, herself, a farmer, but she supports local regulation and predicts new conflicts between farms hosting commercial activity and their neighbors.
“Oversight for highway or for hours of operations, all those kinds of things are gone, and that is going to create a real burden.”
Under the new law, counties can still regulate amplified music, but since farms would not be obliged to get a permit for special events, officials and neighbors would get no warning when large, noisy crowds were expected. The bill does not apply to weddings and other events at wineries, and it allows counties to step in if there’s “substantial impact on the public welfare,” but Mallek says that language is vague and could easily lead to lawsuits.
“The last thing I want to do with county tax dollars is have to spend a lot of it hiring lawyers and going to court, when we could be doing a better job bringing people together to work out what is a good thing for that particular road stretch, that neighborhood.”
The issue of small farmers’ rights became a rallying cry for the tea party in Virginia and for Fox News nationwide. They’re hailing the passage of these bills in Richmond as a victory. Meanwhile, critics of the bills point to special tax breaks for farms and wonder if those should be eliminated when farms become agritourism. Here in Albemarle County, there’s one more concern. Observers say it could now be easier for the Trump winery to build a controversial golf course on its property.