Wineries, farms and nurseries may soon be able to host events open to the general public as part of an agritourism bill that gained approval as it passed through both houses of the General Assembly.
Senate Bill 51 was passed by the House of Delegates on a 75-19 vote Friday and on a 32-7 vote by Senate on Feb. 5. The house’s version, House Bill 268, has so far passed the house on a 73-23 vote and has been referred to a Senate subcommittee.
Both bills aim to do the same thing: allow agriculture- and forestry-based businesses — like tree, flower, nut, fruit or vegetable farms — to host agritourism events without being restricted by localities. The bill stipulates any agritourism activities must not create a “substantial impact on the health, safety, or general welfare of the public.”
State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34th District) says SB51 would allow the wine industry in Virginia to grow by combating local over-regulation for winery owners.
“A lot of counties have tried to restrict, regulate and frankly put these wineries out of business,” Petersen said.
Localities would lose the right to restrict the sale of agricultural or forest products at agricultural operations. The bills would also prevent localities from restricting “the preparation, processing, or sale of food products in compliance with state laws or regulations” at agricultural operations. Local governmental bodies would also be unable to enact more restrictive noise regulations for agricultural events, but would be able to restrict outdoor amplified music.
In James City County, agritourism is not a new topic of discussion.
As part of a July 2013 rural lands discussion, county residents were invited to fill out a questionnaire indicating the uses they wanted to see more of in rural lands. According to county Planner Leanne Pollock, 75 citizens responded to the survey. Of the respondents, 84 percent believed agribusiness or ecotourism uses – such as farmer’s markets, feed and seed stores, country inns and kayak touring companies – should be allowed in the county’s rural lands. A total of 73 percent of respondents wanted agribusiness to increase.
In October, the Board of Supervisors voted to protect Mainland Farm — the longest continuously farmed piece of property in the U.S. — from nonagricultural development. The protection the board placed on the property made allowances for agritourism events to ensure the person operating the property could have carnivals, corn mazes or other events attractive to tourists without violating the protection document.
Early in 2013 the county applied for and received a grant through the Agriculture and Forest Industries Development fund to come up with a plan for increasing agricultural and forestal uses in the county.
James City County’s economic development office has shifted its focus to look toward tourism as a viable economic driver.
“Tourism is important to the county, a number of different forms of tourism are important to the county,” said Economic Development Director Russell Seymour. “Agritourism is certainly a big part of that.”
Seymour said people are becoming more interested in agriculture, which can benefit local businesses and restaurants.
“Agritourism, ecotourism, is really starting to become a strong draw for a lot of people,” Seymour said. “We see the potential for a lot of opportunity.”
The only issue county officials have with the bill so far is that it is hard to understand what it covers.
“The definition of agritourism is rather vague, so we don’t yet know how the language will affect our ordinance specifically,” said Jason Purse, the county’s zoning administrator in an email.
James City County already allows a number of agricultural uses without stringent regulations; there is a zoning district devoted to agriculture.
The Williamsburg Winery is an example of the type of business Purse said may cause confusion. The county allows wineries without any special permit requirements, but only allows wineries to sell wine without a permit. The Williamsburg Winery has a restaurant and conference center, but was required to obtain a special use permit from the county’s Board of Supervisors for those establishments.
Purse said the county will need greater clarification on whether it can restrict those add-on uses.
Trey Davis, an assistant director of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau, said SB51 was introduced after an agricultural group came to a compromise after House Bill 1430, commonly referred to as the “Boneta Bill” for Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta, was defeated last year. Boneta was threatened by the county with thousands of dollars in fines for selling farm products and home crafts and advertising and hosting events without authorization.
HB1430 would have amended the Right to Farm Act by expanding the definition of agricultural operations to include “commerce of farm-to-business and farm-to-consumer sales” in addition to the ability to sell other related items.
Davis, who served as a Virginia Farm Bureau representative for the agriculture group, says the bureau supports SB51 but opposed HB1430 a year ago because the bureau did not support the amendment to the Right to Farm Act and believed the bill was too broadly written.
Davis says the Right to Farm Act is very important to the bureau membership because the act protects agricultural production practices from being considered a nuisance.
Kate Miller of the Capital News Service contributed to the reporting of this article.