Property rights took a significant step forward in Virginia earlier this month when the “Boneta Bill,” which protects farmers and other residents from heavy-handed zoning policies, officially became law. The bill grew out of a dispute between Martha Boneta, who owns and operates the sixty-four-acre “Liberty Farm” in Paris, Virginia, and local government officials. Liberty Farm is about an hour car ride from Washington, D.C.
The case, which has attracted national attention, reached a critical turning point in August 2012 when the Fauquier County Zoning Board of Appeals voted to uphold a series of $15,000 per day fines against Boneta based on amendments made to the county’s zoning ordinance. The fines, which have never been enforced, were issued against Boneta for hosting a birthday party for eight ten-year-old girls and for advertising pumpkin carvings, according to a press release from the Farm-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
Kim Johnson, the county zoning board administrator, claims Boneta sold fresh fruit, vegetables, beverages, and homemade handicrafts out of her on-site farm store in violation of the modified zoning rules. In response, Boneta has said that she has a retail farm business license that “grandfathered” her into any changes that were made.
In any event, property rights advocates from across the state who were opposed to the zoning changes organized a “pitchfork protest” outside of the Board of Zoning Appeals building in support of Boneta after the fines were upheld. This is where the Boneta Bill, which passed the state senate in a unanimous vote, comes into play. Mark Fitzgibbons, a Fauquier County resident and attorney who authored an earlier version of the Boneta Bill, says the new law “sets a higher bar” that will make it more difficult for the county to activate the fines attached to the citations that have been issued against Boneta. Even so, he prefers a stronger version of the legislation that’s more in step with what he originally proposed. Fitzgibbons is calling on lawmakers to support an additional bill, HB1219, which would provide residents with remedies “when local governments abuse zoning power.”
The moderate version of the bill that Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law attracted broad bipartisan support.
“This is progress,” Fitzgibbons said in an interview. “But property rights are still under assault in Virginia, and we need another bill to ensure these rights are protected.”
There are a number of moving parts to this story. Boneta is suing the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, the county’s Board of Zoning, Johnson, and the zoning administrator for $2 million in damages in Fauquier County Circuit Court. But the drama does not end there. Last September, Boneta filed an additional lawsuit against the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), a non-profit group headquartered in Fauquier County. Boneta argues, in the suit against the PEC, that the green group overstepped its authority where the enforcement of conservation easement occupying her property is concerned. She is seeking $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages, according to the new lawsuit.
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