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Fairfax County supervisors, despite objections from some local residents and environmental groups, on June 22 approved new “agritourism” rules that will allow certain by-right commercial operations in agricultural settings.

The zoning-ordinance amendment, which takes effect July 1, will apply to properties where at least 7 acres (up from 5, as previously proposed by county staff) are involved in agricultural production.

Supervisors approved the new rules on a 7-2 vote, with board members Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) and Rodney Lusk (D-Lee) voting nay.

Allowable activities include farm tours, harvest-your-own activities, seasonal festivals and attractions, events, hiking, horseback riding and other activities, historical and cultural endeavors, along with other activities as determined by the zoning administrator.

The new rules codified, and made more consistent and predictable, already-permitted activities in accordance with new state laws, staff said.

Virginia only allows localities to regulate agritourism activities if there are substantial impacts to health, safety on the general welfare, county staff said.

All agritourism operations must have their parking on the same lot as the agricultural operations, with none permitted in the public right-of-way.

To discourage removal of trees and other vegetation and encourage minimal land disturbance, parking need not be designated or located or paved surfaces, officials said.

The new policy divides agritourism operations into four categories:

• Tier 1 operations are permitted on properties of at least 7, but fewer than 10, acres and are limited to 75 attendees per day.

• Tier 2 sites must have between 10 and fewer than 20 acres and are allowed up to 150 attendees daily.

• Tier 3 agritourism venues must have 20 to fewer than 80 acres and be permitted 300 guests per day.

• Tier 4 operations, with sites of 80 acres or more, may have up to 350 guests daily, but could exceed that limit for up to 150 days per year via an administrative permit.

Operators in all four tiers could exceed attendance limits if they obtained special permits, which would require transportation-management and parking plans, as well as descriptions of sanitary arrangements for the public and employees.

Tier 1 and 2 operations may have only a maximum of 2,500 square feet of paved surfaces outside their buildings. Tiers 3 and 4 may have up to 5,000 square feet.

The new rules also:

• Allow bed-and-breakfasts by-right when associated with agricultural operations of at least 20 acres. • Permit food trucks in association with agricultural operations, farm wineries, and limited breweries and distilleries. • Rename quarters for tenant farmers as “farm-worker” housing and add further standards for such uses, such as a maximum of 10 occupants. • Allow wayside stands to be permanent structures when serving agricultural operations.

Opponents characterized the new rules as a crack in a sacrosanct policy that has protected the Occoquan River watershed – a major source of drinking water – since 1982.

“I’m appalled by this effort to undo Fairfax County’s reputation for being an admirable steward of our environment,” said Adrienne Whyte of Reclaim Fairfax County. “Is the enrichment of a few of greater benefit than the clean drinking water of many?”

James Hart, vice chairman of the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals, said the county’s tiers “are too intense for substandard side roads,” Hart said. “Neither the General Assembly nor the courts are requiring this,” he said. “This is a self-inflicted injury.”

Jennifer Falcone, chairman of the Great Falls Citizens Association’s Land-Use and Zoning Committee, asked supervisors to approve lower daily attendance limits for agritourism operations and consider the traffic-congestion, safety and environmental impacts of those businesses.

“We believe that substituting administrative-permit approvals based on staff review alone, while expeditious, deprives those members of the public having a substantial interest in the outcome of their rights to participate in decisions and interpretations of zoning regulations affecting their properties and residential neighborhood,” she said.

Annandale resident Amy Gould worried that environmental groups had been left out of the discussions.

“Only those who will benefit were involved as a stakeholder, and this seems to be the new way of doing things here,” she said.

Joseph Johnston, board of trustees president for the Virginia Run Homeowners’ Association, said supervisors were moving ahead without necessary citizen input.

“Your rush to judgment is proof that you continue not to understand the need for transparency, for accountability for your actions or for the needs and desires of the county’s residents,” Johnston said.

Not all of the testimony was negative. Mark Looney, a land-use and zoning attorney, said the new amendment will help the county capture tax revenues that otherwise had been going to other jurisdictions.

Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) worried about the potential public use of farm buildings that had not been subjected to the usual building codes.

“Hundreds of people can gather in these buildings and be at risk,” he said. “We just should not have these types of structures [and] open them up to huge public gatherings. It’s an accident waiting to happen, obviously, and we need to fix that.”

Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) said land stewardship was a key activity for farmers.

“I think that today’s farmers are conservationists at heart and they’re not going to do anything that is going to impede or destroy their way of life.”

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