In a hard-fought and stunning victory for family farmers and property rights throughout the Commonwealth, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ON March 5 signed into law legislation solidifying Virginia’s status as a right-to-farm state by limiting local officials’ ability to interfere with normal agricultural operations.
The governor’s signature marks the latest chapter in a swirling controversy that attracted nationwide attention in 2012 when the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors forced family farmer Martha Boneta to cease selling produce from her own 64-acre farm. No longer allowed to sell the vegetables she had harvested, Boneta donated the food to local charities lest it go to waste.
Fauquier County officials threatened Boneta with $5,000 per-day fines for hosting a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls without a permit, and advertising pumpkin carvings. Seeing in the county’s action against Boneta as a brazen effort to drive her off her land, Virginians from all walks of life rallied to her defense. Supporters gathered in Warrenton, the county seat, for a peaceful “pitchfork protest” to vent their anger over what an out-of-control local government had done to a law-abiding citizen.
In the 2013 session of the General Assembly, Rep. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, spearheaded an effort to undo the injustice inflicted on Boneta, and to protect other small farmers from similar abuse, by strengthening Virginia’s Right to Farm Act. What became known as the “Boneta Bill” passed the House by an overwhelming margin but was killed in a Senate committee. Undeterred, Boneta and her supporters came back to the General Assembly in 2014 and won wide bipartisan approval for legislation protecting the rights of family farmers.
The bill signed by Gov. McAuliffe grew out of legislation developed by Rep. Bobby Orrick, R-Thornburg, and Rep. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, and supported by, among others, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax. Backed by the Virginia Farm Bureau, the new law protects customary activities at agricultural operations from local bans in the absence of substantial impacts on public welfare. It also prohibits localities from requiring a special-use permit for a host of farm-related activities that are specified in the bill. The law takes effect on July 1.
“I want to thank Gov. McAuliffe, the members of the General Assembly, and all those who have rallied to the defense of family farmers,” Boneta said. “After all my family and I have been through, it is gratifying to know that an injustice can be undone, and the rights of farmers as entrepreneurs can be upheld thanks to the work of so many dedicated people.”
Successful Grassroots Effort
Passage of the Boneta Bill was all the more remarkable, because it was entirely a grassroots effort. Supporters of the legislation, none of whom received any compensation for the time and effort they devoted to the cause, flooded the state capitol in Richmond with emails, phone calls, and personal visits with lawmakers to ensure enactment of the legislation.
By contrast, opponents of the bill, including well-funded environmental organizations and power-hungry county governments – both determined to preserve strict land-use controls – reportedly employed lobbyists to kill the bill. In the end, highly motivated citizens triumphed over highly paid lobbyists.