Editorial: Rural residents should speak because a commercial venue is proposed for agricultural land


BACK BAY — A pending conditional use permit request deserves attention before the Virginia Beach City Council makes a decision that could have consequences for rural communities.

The City Council on Tuesday, Aug. 25, is scheduled to consider a proposal to allow a commercial use that isn’t farming on land zoned for agriculture. 

Wolfe Bros Events, LLC, wants to hold up to 30 outdoor events per year and an unlimited number of indoor events on a property that, while secluded, is off a rural two-lane stretch of Princess Anne Road not far from the Back Bay Post Office.

Some farmers have raised objections to the request because the Wolfe Bros proposal is not an ancillary use on a working farm. Rather, the venue is the business, and that should give reasonable people pause.

The Planning Commission, following the lead of two farmers in its number, voted to recommend against the request, but the City Council’s decision is not assured. People with concerns need to be heard before the vote.

In its coverage, The Virginian-Pilot noted efforts to change city regulations governing agricultural land to prevent such “assembly uses,” but that change doesn’t seem to be coming in the near future – if it does at all – and recent reporting by The Pilot might give folks a misleading impression talks among farmers took place in some back room. 

The Agricultural Advisory Commission continues to discuss specifically prohibiting assembly uses on farmland, but, at present, there is no concrete recommendation on an issue that has been batted around for two years. Regarding Wolfe Bros, The Pilot quoted Planning Commissioner George Alcaraz, who said the effort to change the rules “leaves a bad taste in my mouth.” 

However, these discussions simply were not held “behind the scenes,” as The Pilot reported. Rather, conversations were held during public meetings.

Concerns about the Wolfe Bros project itself have been widely discussed during public meetings of Agricultural Advisory Commission. That commission may not draw big crowds, but it does its work in the open. 

And there has been previous media coverage of discussions about assembly uses and the Wolfe Bros plan. Regarding Wolfe Bros, our stories date back to late last year. Read them here and here.

The legitimate concerns of members of the advisory commission about the scope of the Wolfe Bros project on farmland (and assembly uses, overall) were not secret prior to the Planning Commission vote in June. The Agricultural Advisory Commission sent a letter to Wolfe Bros seeking more information about the project. 

“Our main concern is whether this business model fits in an agricultural zoned area,” Diane Horsley, chairperson of the advisory commission, wrote on Tuesday, Oct. 22, before listing questions seeking specifics about farming Wolfe Bros intends to do.

There were conversations with an attorney about having horses on the property, Horsley said, but there was not a sense this would be a bonafide farming operation. There are worries about land use and traffic.

Developers may ask for more while willing to swallow a bit less. We saw this to some extent with Harvest Farms, a subdivision proposal that sought extra units near Pungo as a trade for helping out with flooding issues nearby, but there was a point at which the project did not work. 

Wolf Bros wants to operate a venue in Back Bay, and it lowered the number of events originally sought — they initially wanted 50 per year outdoors — and the number of attendees in a way that may be significant to a business plan, but what remains is still a lot to ask.

“The AAC has been considering assembly use language for agricultural zoned property from the standpoint as an ancillary use for farm operations,” the commissioners’ letter states. 

Farming landowners can already hold a few by right, Horsley noted, “and if the proposed concept is approved the landscape of agriculture could vastly change.” 

The Independent News is not endorsing every aspect of the Agricultural Advisory Commission’s deliberations about allowing assembly uses on farmland.

It is hard to see harm in allowing limited events on actual farms, an idea the advisory commission in recent months essentially has abandoned.

The Pilot’s story, as The Independent News first reported two years ago, fairly acknowledges some farmers have wanted to hold weddings. Additionally, there are places on agricultural land outside the southern city that can likely handle assemblies well.

But Wolfe Bros is not an established farm seeking to diversify.

People with a stake in our rural communities and the agricultural industry, which remains the third largest industry in Virginia Beach, need to speak.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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