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Planning Commission recommends denial of proposed event venue on farmland in rural Virginia Beach

Ed. — This story originally appeared in the Sunday, July 5, print edition. It has been updated to include the date upon which the City Council is scheduled to consider the proposal. Additionally, it now appears unlikely the City Council will consider disallowing assembly uses overall on agricultural land anytime soon.

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

COURTHOUSE — The Planning Commission has recommended that the City Council should not allow a conditional use permit that would clear the way for an event venue for weddings and corporate meetings on a horse farm in rural Back Bay.

After two farmers who serve on the commission spoke against the application of Wolfe Bros Events, LLC, the Planning Commission on Wednesday, June 24, voted, 7-4, to recommend the project be denied. 

Planning Commissioners Steve Barnes, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District, and Don Horsley, a farmer who holds an at-large seat, during the June meeting relayed concerns expressed by the agricultural community that the project essentially is a commercial use of farmland that just plain isn’t farming, though horses continue to be boarded at the site.

In response to discussions about expanding allowable activities on farmland, the City Council eventually could consider whether to make assembly uses such as weddings prohibited on land zoned for farming.

The application for the venue may still go before the City Council, which will make the ultimate decision about the plans of Wolfe Bros Events, LLC, which hopes to hold up to 30 outdoor weddings and corporate events and unlimited indoor events on a 63-acre site on the 1100 block of Princess Anne Road – though well off the road and away from neighboring properties. 

The City Council is scheduled to consider the conditional use permit request on Tuesday, Aug. 25.

The application was deferred late last year after Horsley raised concerns, and applicants and their lawyer discussed them with officials. The applicants reduced the number of outdoor events per year from 50 to 30 and reduced the number of requested attendees from 250 to 150 per event, though five outdoor events per year might have up to 250 guests, according to a planning report.

A proposed venue would be up to 5,565 square feet, including an eventual expansion of 1,245 square feet, according to the report. Outdoor events would be over by 10 p.m., and indoor events would be done by 11 p.m.

“Even with the revisions to the events,” Planner Hoa N. Dao wrote in the report, “the Agricultural Advisory Commission is opposed to the request.”

City staff had recommended approval over the concerns of farmers, however, with conditions, such as the limited number of events and an opportunity to make the conditional use permit subject to annual review.

“This isn’t a threat to the agricultural industry,” said R.J. Nutter, an attorney representing Wolfe Bros. “This is a use that is routinely located in agricultural industries all over the state. It’s in the wine country in Charlottesville. It’s in the Eastern Shore in the farm counties because Millennials like to have a wedding in a barn for whatever reason.”

The Planning Commission makes recommendations to the council, and the recommendation to deny the permit is consistent with opposition to the project expressed by the Agricultural Advisory Commission and not the city planning staff. In recent months, the advisory body of farmers has expressed concern that the project essentially is a commercial business trying to operate on land zoned for farming – and that allowing it would open a can of worms.

“This won’t be the end of it,” Barnes said during the Planning Commission meeting. “Once we allow this, then they’re going to say, ‘Well, you allowed this guy this.’”

The Wolfe Bros project also comes as farmers have grappled with whether to allow so-called assembly uses, such as weddings, as ancillary uses – meaning in addition to actual farming – on agriculturally zoned land in general and for properties that are part of the city’s major farmland preservation program. 

The agricultural reserve program, commonly known by the acronym ARP, buys development rights from property owners to keep farmland viable as cropland or pasture.

Nutter said his clients want to open a small event venue for weddings and corporate meetings. Nutter said they have had a lot of interest about the potential venue, including for a large wedding from a Pungo family.

“I can clearly tell you there is a strong need and desire for a wedding venue like this in the Pungo area,” Nutter said during the meeting. 

Nutter said the venue would be well away from neighboring properties, far off Princess Anne Road, and the area behind it is a large wetlands area. Neighboring property owners are supportive, he said. He also said his clients have worked with planning staff on conditions and met with representatives of the agricultural community to address concerns, including reducing the number of events allowed from 50 to 30 per year.

Regarding the possibility of the City Council preventing weddings from being an allowed use, he said Wolfe Bros filed its application a year ago.

“So it wouldn’t be fair to change the rules on an applicant who has met with your staff, met with the adjacent property owners, agreed to every condition that’s been requested of them, they’ve come here, purchased the property and made accommodations to move forward,” he said.

Though some supported the proposal, other members of the Planning Commission expressed concerns on impacts in the rural community.

“I do think there is a legitimate concern in the agriculture community that it remains agricultural, and I share it,” said Planning Commissioner David Redmond, who represents the Bayside District. 

“And I really do,” he said. “It’s a wonderful part of the city. It’s a wonderful industry to have. So many cities around us don’t have anything like it. I feel like they’re deprived. I feel really privileged that we have the agriculture industry in Virginia Beach that we do. And I want to keep it and maintain it.”


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