Ed. — This archived story appeared in the Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, print edition.
BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE – Members of the Virginia Beach Agriculture Advisory Commission have concerns about a proposal to build an event venue on a horse farm in rural Back Bay, including a 4,200 square foot structure, because they aren’t sure such a use is suitable for land zoned for agriculture.
Discussion during a recent meeting of the advisory body included concerns about traffic along two-lane Princess Anne Road and concern about setting a precedent that will allow commercial uses that are perhaps only tangentially related to farming on land zoned for agriculture.
Wolfe Bros Events, LLC, wants to build the venue on 63 acres at 1145 Princess Anne Road, just north of a post office that serves the rural reaches of Virginia Beach, on land that now has a horse boarding business.
One of the applicants lives in a home on the property. The business needs a conditional use permit to operate, meaning the request must face the Planning Commission and then the City Council.
After hearing from one of the applicants and his lawyer, the advisory body of farmers this past week was preparing a letter outlining concerns and seeking more information, according to its chairperson.
“I think we have some questions we want them to answer,” said Diane Horsley, chairperson of the commission and a farmer from Blackwater, during a telephone interview on Thursday, Oct. 17, the day this edition of The Independent News went to press.
Horsley said the commission wants to give the applicant the benefit of the doubt, but members also want to understand what level of agricultural activity actually will be on the land before considering a recommendation about the venue project.
Proposed numbers that raised eyebrows during a meeting of the agriculture commission on Monday, Oct. 14, had support of the city staff, which recommended approval. Wolfe Bros Events wants to hold no more than 50 outdoor events per year, with less than 250 people at each event, but it also wants an unlimited number of indoor events.
City planners recommended approval with a number of conditions, such as how late music can be amplified and annual reviews by planning to determine whether an assembly use should continue to be allowed.
However, the matter was deferred during a recent meeting of the Virginia Beach Planning Commission. Don Horsley, a farmer who is a member of the Planning Commission and Diane Horsley’s husband, recommended the applicant go before the Agriculture Advisory Commission first.
“This one planning commissioner slipped me a note and said would you mind deferring it,” R.J. Nutter, a lawyer representing the venue, noted during the Agriculture Advisory Commission meeting.
Nutter said his clients have invested in the project and want to work to address any concerns about the venue. He said they are willing to discuss the number of events sought and other potential sticking points.
He said the business may bring some more animals to the property, too, and that the project would have agriculture involved.
The property opens up to wetlands and nearby neighbors are far enough away that they would not be affected by it.
“We want to be good neighbors,” he said.
Nutter also stressed that his clients offered the city an annual opportunity to review the permit to ensure they are doing what they promised. “As you can imagine,” he said, “most businesses would not agree to that.”
City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District and is a farmer, was among those who asked questions about the scope of the project.
“But the number of events is unlimited,” Henley said at one point.
Nutter agreed, speaking of indoor events, but said his clients were concerned about the number to make the venue work.
“I’m concerned about traffic,” Henley replied.
Don Horsley, who also attended the meeting, said these sorts of issues should be reviewed for agricultural concerns.
As many conversations about land use in farming areas tend to do, concerns came back to establishing precedents that might be emulated by other businesspeople who mean to run commercial activities on agricultural land with uncertain connection to actual farming.
“The horse gets out of the barn and you can’t get it back in easily,” Henley said.
The largest number of assemblies per year discussed during the meeting was 20 allowed for an agriculturally-zoned property near Pungo that is not within the ARP. That is governed by a conditional use permit, officials said during the meeting.
Farmer John Cromwell, secretary of the advisory commission, was among those concerned about the number of events at the venue. “That man is not going to have more than 20 events a year if his principal activity is agriculture,” Cromwell said. “I think 20 would be a gracious plenty for a number of events.”
The agriculture commission for a year has been grappling with whether to allow properties within the city’s agricultural reserve program to have some number of assembly events such as weddings.
A condition discussed throughout that effort – which is not expected to be finalized in the immediate future – is that the property should be primarily used for farming and be able to demonstrate that in some way.
Agricultural properties outside the ARP, as the program that buys development rights to keep land productive is known, can have assembly use events. Changing the regulations behind the ARP would mean to allow for similar uses to agriculturally-zoned properties that are not enrolled in the program.
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