Policy: Environment & Energy

Examiner Local Editorial: Freedom to farm without fear

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Opinion,Local Editorial,Agriculture,Energy and Environment

Fauquier County zoning officials may soon be wishing they had left organic farmer Martha Boneta alone. As The Washington Examiner reported in September, Boneta was threatened with a $5,000 fine for hosting a birthday party for the 10-year-old daughter of a friend on her 70-acre Paris farm. She was then forced to shut down the small shop she operated out of her 19th-century barn when county bureaucrats decided that the business license they had issued her in 2011 was insufficient.

A protest by Boneta's outraged fellow farmers, who showed up with pitchforks in hand, made national headlines, exposing the harsh dichotomy of Politburo-like bureaucrats threatening small landowners who scratch out a living in the bucolic Piedmont countryside.

A $2 million lawsuit, filed by McLean attorney Michelle Rosati against Fauquier County Zoning Administrator Kimberley Johnson, claims the county violated Boneta's due process and equal protection rights. According to the complaint, the county singled her out for punishment even though 1,200 other Fauquier farmers engage in the same type of agriculture-related commerce that's protected under Virginia's Right to Farm Act.

On Tuesday, Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, will submit a bill expanding that law to the Virginia General Assembly. He hopes his model legislation will be adopted by other states nationwide.

Lingamfelter's bill is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it amends the definition of agricultural operation to include the sale of farm products, both those produced on the farm itself and farm-related items brought in from other places, such as handcrafted items, honey and even bottled water. This would protect Virginia farmers whose property is zoned for agricultural use from the kind of harassment that forced Boneta to close Paris Barns at Liberty Farm, her popular farm store.

Another provision in the bill would void any county ordinances that in any way violate the constitutional right of farmers in Virginia to engage in traditional, self-sustaining agriculture activities on their own property. And as a deterrent to overzealous bureaucrats like Johnson, Lingamfelter's bill would make county officials subject to the same criminal fines and penalties, plus attorneys' fees, that they improperly seek to impose on hard-working farmers.

The legislature should pass this bill so that farmers in Virginia can once again sell farm products and host birthday parties, pumpkin carvings and corn mazes without fear.

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