July 15, 2014
The Albemarle County Planning Commission is recommending some new guidelines for farmers who want to take advantage of agritourism. The guidelines are in response to a new state law that went into effect July 1.
The law makes it easier for farmers to launch tourism ventures without county oversight, which concerned some members of the planning commission.
"There was a gap there where the county was not going to know what these enterprises were, how many of them were there, and where they were located," said planning commissioner Rick Randolph, who represents the Scottsville District.
The guidelines the planning commission are recommending are designed to fill that gap. They would apply mostly to small farms, defined as 21 acres or less. Farms of that size would need to seek a zoning clearance, for example, to start hosting agritourism events, or to start selling their products to a large group of people in a single day on site.
This zoning clearance would likely require a face-to-face meeting with someone from the county, to discuss things like parking and access to bathrooms.
"We just want to be sure that that business gets the best guidance possible," Randolph said.
The planning commission expressed concerns that some small farms would be unprepared to prevent environmental impacts from the visitors, such as "trash and impacts on rivers, streams, wetlands," Randolph said.
Large wineries and breweries are not impacted as much by the zoning clearances, but they would need to continue to get permits to hold events with more than 200 people.
Neil Williamson, the President of the Free Enterprise Forum, spoke at the hearing and said the county might be going too cautious with the regulations, especially when it comes to traffic concerns.
"When I look at 25 cars coming in through the course of the day, I don't find that to be the same level of intensity that some of the commissioners seem to have trouble with," Williamson said.
But Randolph says those numbers can add up quickly, especially if there are multiple farms having visitors on the same road.
"What you don't want to see is have an explosion of these businesses," Randolph said. "What previously was a beautiful, bucolic road, is now just swarming with people coming in."
Williamson says that the county could face legal opposition if the regulations are too strict, since the new state law says the county can only require a special use permit in agritourism if there is a "substantial impact on the health, safety, or general welfare of the public."
The planning commission voted unanimously to recommend the guidelines to the board of supervisors. The board will have the final say on how strict the rules are.