The Albemarle Planning Commission has recommended approval of the first phase of changes to the county’s rules on events held at farms.
But the main topic of discussion after the April 9, 2019 public hearing focused on whether the county would proceed with a second phase that would review the definitions of “agricultural operations” to ensure that only those farms that are bona fide are able to qualify.
Rebecca Ragsdale, the planner for the item, said the second will begin this year but an exact date is not known.
“It’s scheduled to be scheduled,” Ragsdale said.
Albemarle has to wade through this process carefully because of legislation passed in 2014 that banned localities from regulating activities at agricultural operations “unless there is a substantial impact on the health, safety, or general welfare of the public.”
One of the activities is “agritourism.”
“Any activity that is held on a farm and that is open to the public is considered agritourism,” said deputy county attorney Andy Herrick. “Unless the county is able to show that there is a substantial impact on the health, safety and general welfare of the public, we are limited in our ability to regulate.”
Herrick said the goal of the first phase is to bring regulations for agricultural operations closer in line with those for wineries, breweries and distilleries.
One change in the proposed amendments would require adjacent neighbors to be notified if a property owner filed for permission to have up to 24 events a year. Another is a requirement that there be a minimum of five acres in agricultural production.
“Those require a one-time zoning clearance and that’s what we’re attempting to do here rather than doing it event by event by event,” Herrick said.
Commissioner Karen Firehock asked if it were possible to require those holding events to have a public calendar so neighbors can be notified in advance.
“Let’s say you’re trying to plan a graduation party and you want to know if there’s a big wedding that’s going to be happening at the same time,” Firehock said.
Ragsdale said the ordinance change would require those holding events to provide a contact number. This is currently required for events at weddings, farm breweries and distilleries.
“We want to encourage communication with the neighbors so if they have concerns about certain activities on their property or the adjacent property, they can discuss that with each other,” Ragsdale said.
Commissioner Julian Bivins said he felt it was “helpful” for the regulations for events at agricultural operations to be similar to those for weddings, farm breweries and distilleries.
“My fear is that we’re going to see an emerging venue that calls itself a petting farm or a ‘pick up the eggs’ kind of farm, but really what we’re doing is throwing a garter farm,” Bivins said. “We’re throwing garters and cutting cakes.”
Herrick said another issue is whether the county could enforce regulations on continued notification of events.
“I would be concerned about expecting the code compliance officers of the county to actually go in and keep tabs on what notice has been sent out for what activities to what people,” Herrick said. “I think if county code compliance officers are expected to monitor at that level of detail, you’ve created something that’s much more difficult to enforce from an administrative perspective.”
Amelia McCulley, soon to be the acting director of Community Development, said the scoping for the second phase will occur in the third quarter of the year. She said this could involve a joint meeting between the Board and the Planning Commission “to figure out how far to go with this” followed by public engagement.
“This can take a year because it is that involved,” McCulley said. “It depends on the scope of it. We’ll know more then, but it could potentially could be wrapping up at the end of 2020. Sooner if possible if it’s a more limited scope.”
Bivins gave an idea of what he would like to see in that discussion.
“That’s where we would have discussions on whether or not weddings are not really a wedding as opposed to the agricultural business,” Bivins said. “We’ll have some conversations about how we might look to distinguish what is and what isn’t a true agricultural operation.”
“We would really want to be very clear about what we’re taking on in phase 2,” McCulley said.
Commissioner Tim Keller said the advisory body must play a role in educating people about the conflict between state and local law.
“When people are coming asking that we try to assist them with their concerns, we have a duty to explain why we’re challenged,” Keller said.
Herrick said there is a four-page FAQ on the issue on the county website.
“This has been an area of evolving law, mostly nudged along by the General Assembly,” Herrick said.
“Can we do something?” Herrick asked. “Only if we can make the relation to having a substantial impact on health, safety or general welfare of the public. The next question is should we do something like that. That would be more of the administrative issues. I would suggest that those sorts of discussions would be best deferred until phase 2. At that point, a more full discussion [could be had] about where the balance lies between the ability of agricultural operations to hold agriculture activities and the public to have safe travel, for instance.”
Firehock expressed frustration that the county had no mechanism to measure the cumulative impact of so many events.
“There are parts of our rural areas where there is just one way in,” Firehock said.
The Commission voted 7-0 to recommend approval of the first phase of recommendations.