An organic Fauquier County farmer who inspired a pitchfork rebellion in the Piedmont after being threatened with a $5,000 fine for selling farm products on her own farm is fighting back against her bureaucratic tormentors. In a $2 million lawsuit filed in Fauquier Circuit Court last week, McLean attorney Michelle Rosati presents compelling evidence that zoning officials -- not Martha Boneta -- are the real lawbreakers.
Boneta's 70-acre farm in Paris, Va., made national headlines after Zoning Administrator Kimberley Johnson also cited her for hosting a private children's birthday party on her property without a permit. As the 10-count lawsuit alleges, Johnson and other zoning officials operated beyond the bounds of their legal authority and violated her constitutional rights by poking their noses into Boneta's business.
Boneta's application for a business license, which the county approved in June 2011, clearly stated that she would be selling agricultural items at her "retail farm shop," located in a 19th century barn, in addition to raising crops and livestock. County supervisors imposed new restrictions when they amended their zoning ordinance a month later. For the next year after that, Fauquier County did not issue even one administrative permit.
"The Paris Farm was literally the only property that had ever received a notice of violation" for failure to obtain a permit, Rosati pointed out. And singling out Boneta from the 1,200 other farmers in Fauquier for zoning enforcement violated her right to equal protection under the law.
According to the lawsuit, the county also violated Boneta's due process rights by refusing to give her enough time to analyze a staff report germane to her defense. As the Fauquier County Board of Zoning Appeals was denying her appeal without any "findings of fact" that Boneta had done anything illegal, Fauquier County officials themselves were in violation of Virginia's Freedom of Information and Right to Farm Acts.
This troubling case shines a needed spotlight on the power local bureaucrats have to destroy small businesses. Indeed, days before her unsuccessful appeal, county officials refused to renew Boneta's business license. Unable to legally sell the fruits of her labor, she was forced to donate her organic vegetables to a local food bank. "No tomato is beyond the reach of tyrants," one blogger caustically commented.
In a commonwealth whose motto is "Sic semper tyrannis," such persecution should never be tolerated.