Ed. — From the Sunday, Sept. 6, print edition.
BACK BAY — False steps large and small by Virginia Beach’s government and people who advise it led to the City Council decision this past month to permit Wolfe Bros Events LLC, an event venue that has nothing to do with farming, operate on land zoned for agriculture.
A majority of the City Council ignored warnings from the agriculture industry in favor of appeals from tourism interests and people who want pretty weddings at a commercial venue dolled up like a rustic barn off a country road in rural Back Bay. So they will have them. It comes at the cost of a broken promise to protect future generations of farmers and quality of life for rural residents when Virginia Beach should have kept its vow to help sustain them.
The council’s 8-3 choice is a failure to maintain its own plan and listen to experts. It is a victory of marketing over sense, popularity over policy, tourism over agriculture.
Citizens should come away from this knowing the City Council ignored the long-term prospects of farming in Virginia Beach by undermining zoning and planning guidance. The decision could weaken the future allure of the agricultural reserve program, or ARP, an important mechanism that preserves farmland by buying development rights from landowners.
The property in question is not within the ARP, but this decision essentially blesses a nonfarming assembly use as a main use – not an ancillary purpose, meaning supporting a primary activity – for land that is zoned for agriculture. This could make farmland preservation for actual agricultural businesses less attractive by providing landowners with a nonfarming commercial option, kneecapping the city’s efforts to do exactly the opposite.
The vote allows Wolfe Bros Events LLC to build a large event space that looks like a “barn” on a former horse farm for the purpose of holding 30 outdoor events per year, likely but not necessarily weddings, and unlimited indoor events. This will be done off a two-lane rural road deep in southern Virginia Beach, and some events may extend past dark. Again, this was sold as a wedding venue, but a range of other events could be held there. A possible “farming” activity is to grow an undefined amount of lavender in partnership with a nursery, but this obviously is not the purpose of this project.
One supportive letter to the City Council, part of a package that helped sway the body, incorrectly calls this a “lavender farm.” Another letter refers to it as the “Wolfe Bros Farm.” Yet another proponent says the City Council should back business, “especially ones with the agricultural theme,” emphasis added.
The most laughable letter may be from the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. It calls the venue “a doorway to bring in visitors from around the region and the country,” selling this as a booster for “hotel, restaurant and attraction establishments at the Oceanfront and throughout the city.” The chamber claims it supports conditions for “all businesses to succeed,” but it absurdly ignores the area’s real business — farming. The tourism industry and a willing government apparently see farmers only as props.
Yet farmers do business, and their collective work in this city is an industry. The lavender adorning this project is window dressing. The city Agricultural Advisory Commission, the local Farm Bureau and individuals rightly pointed this out to the City Council. And were dismissed.
Let’s briefly recap some events from the past year or so. City staff, apparently downplaying the meaning of zoning guidelines, the theoretical Green Line and land-use standards for the rural half of the city, recommended the Wolfe Bros project for approval. However, the applicant, facing a Planning Commission vote, held off after farmer and Commissioner Don Horsley said farmers should weigh in on this issue, which obviously is a critical one of land use because this is in an area where nonfarming uses are discouraged.
The Agricultural Advisory Commission also recommended against it, even after the Wolfe Bros made modest concessions, but, unfortunately, the body of farmers also has avoided taking action on the wider issue of assembly uses on farmland. This matters because the desire to hold barnyard weddings is not a novel issue as some have implied.
There were opportunities over the past couple years to shape assembly uses on farmland in a way that might have benefitted bona fide farmers and, at least, set a standard for this. Inaction costs.
Then the Planning Commission initially recommended against the project, siding with Horsley and Steve Barnes, the only two farmers among its ranks.
And then a simple failure by city staff to properly advertise a public meeting led to another vote during an unusual joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission this past month.
And then the Planning Commission, in a flip-flop for the ages, reversed its earlier recommendation.
Meanwhile, the City Council, seated a row back on the dais, watched it happen moments before its own vote.
Wolfe Bros Events had executed a masterful letter campaign of support and packed the Virginia Beach Convention Center, where the meeting was held, with simpatico minds. Farmers mostly stayed home. Frustratingly, the farming community sometimes avoids standing up for its own interests in public. Tourism interests are less shy.
That said, after the initial Planning Commission recommendation, this all seemed unlikely to pass, and farmers — or any citizens, really — shouldn’t need to amble into a meeting to be fairly represented. A City Council should not need to compare wedding dresses versus overalls within their immediate field of vision to uphold their standards.
Because standards exist. There is guidance that should have prevented this outcome. At heart, this is a land-use failure at odds with the intent of zoning regulations and planning policy guidance recommended by the Planning Commission and adopted by the City Council.
Properties zoned for agriculture are meant to “protect and preserve agricultural lands for agricultural functions.” Obvious farming uses are permitted. Others, including assembly uses such as weddings, require a conditional use permit. Residential units also may be permitted, but there are restrictions, as rural residents know.
There are reasons for these restrictions that are not found in zoning rules alone. If you own agriculturally zoned land, you can get a conditional use permit, but permits are not guaranteed because nothing involving land use happens in a vacuum.
The city’s true north for land use should be its 2016 comprehensive plan update, which contains guidance about intended businesses in rural areas, such as where they should go and why this is the case. The plan has obvious recommendations to put some businesses in relatively dense areas, such as Pungo, Creeds, Blackwater or Back Bay, which are small — very small — commercial hubs. By design, commercial business that is unrelated to farming should be focused there.
Rural area land use policies “assist in keeping taxes low and assuring continued local, state and national food production,” according to the comprehensive plan. First among objectives for the rural area is “to preserve and promote a vibrant agricultural economy.” Preserving agriculture “is an important economic and land use issue.”
The plan says land use or development in the rural area should be judged in terms of preserving and strengthening farming. “We should continue to pay careful attention to managing the density, intensity and design of rural residential and non-farm related, non-residential development that occurs in the rural area in order to achieve the goals of the rural preservation plan,” the plan states.
The Wolfe Bros decision falls short here.
Proponents pointed out that assembly uses happen at other venues, such as the Culpepper Barn in “downtown” Pungo and the Creeds Ruritan Community Complex in nearby Back Bay. Sure, but these are not apples-to-apples comparisons.
The Culpepper Barn is in the village of Pungo, what some locals call “downtown,” an appropriate area for that venue because this specific part of Pungo is the commercial hub. As the comprehensive plan states, such villages are “small in scale, but serve the commercial needs of a comparatively large geographic area.” Pungo village, home to the annual Pungo Strawberry Festival, is the primary commercial center, and it is considered the gateway to the rural area south of Indian River Road.
A better comparison is the nonprofit Military Aviation Museum in the Back Bay area, the site of a number of large community and aviation events that essentially occur between nodes of commerce. This, too, is a conditional use approved over the concerns of some in the community, but this and the Wolfe Projects do not compare in location, size or scope. The airport and museum property houses a much larger operation, but there is room at the airport site for, among other things, a turn lane into the property. That does not make traffic ideal, but it makes some difference. The airport is also unique, not something others may easily duplicate nearby.
The comprehensive plan states: “Non-residential development should be located within a rural village, unless the non-residential is agricultural in nature or a farm, part of a farm, stable or mill.” The Wolfe Bros project is slightly north of a commercial node in Back Bay near a small U.S. Post Office, but not clearly within this small hub. Again, it will not be a farm. The venue would be 5,565 square feet, including an expansion of 1,245 square feet, according to a city planning report.
The Creeds Ruritan Community Complex, which roughly is in a gathering of business (or former business) sites in Back Bay, hosts events such as wedding receptions, but it is clearly tied to the agricultural community. The complex is a home to the Dick Cockrell Arena, where a number of farming events take place, including livestock sales, and meetings such as candidate forums during which politicians woo farmers and locals. It is not just an event venue. It is a center of rural public life.
Some have implied that the Wolfe Bros project supports “agritourism” without clearly understanding this is defined in law. In Virginia Beach zoning code, with emphasis added, agritourism activities “shall be held on the property of an active agricultural operation, where such agricultural operation is the principal use of the property.” Further, the code (echoing state language) says agritourism activities are held on a farm or ranch. Agricultural operations are “devoted to the bona fide production of crops, animals or fowl.” Renting out a farm or ranch for events such as weddings does not mean this practice is agritourism. Again, lavender on a portion of the Wolfe Bros commercial site will not be a principal agricultural use. This simply is not a working farm.
Some folks who don’t understand farming seem to have the wrong idea about why land-use matters – and why potentially weakening the ARP by giving landowners a commercial, nonfarming option is unwise. People to seem to think farm markets selling produce, equine operations and the Pungo Strawberry Festival are the entirety of the agriculture industry. These things absolutely are important. They employ, sustain and promote family farms while serving as a public face of farming. It also is important for city leaders to understand that a large part of the economic impact of farming in Virginia Beach is about grain production.
These are commodities that take a lot of investment to produce, harvest and transport to the granary and, ultimately, through the Port of Hampton Roads to the wider world. Protecting rural land isn’t about superficial lifestyles and those who can afford an upscale version of them – or merely avoiding the extension of costly city services. Southern Virginia Beach, in a quiet way most Virginia Beach residents either do not appreciate or choose to ignore, is a source both of the important local trade we see through local markets or restaurants and, through the grain production that perhaps is less obvious, international trade.
This is one of the major reasons we must carefully protect the land and how it is used. We do not weaken the allure to property owners to preserving farmland that fuels actual commerce behind scenic vistas that make suburbanites and tourists coo from passing SUVs. We care about the zoning of a property that may not actively be farmed because precedents may hurt another property with the same zoning that grows soybeans, corn or strawberries.
It is open space, yes, but it isn’t just open space. The farms of rural Virginia Beach are work sites.
We listen to farmers because they are educated, skilled businesspeople who know their trade and the land upon which it relies. They are not stereotypes, the backdrop of a wedding photo or pretty pictures in a brochure.
The Independent News, in another editorial, warned its readers, but it was not because the newspaper bears any ill will toward Wolfe Bros. It is done now. Wishing an approved business anything other than prosperity is unproductive. The problem is not with Wolfe Bros but with a city government that is not clear about why this vote – and projects it may inspire – hurts.
The City Council is most responsible.
Five people on the City Council are up for reelection this year. Of those, Mayor Bobby Dyer, seeking his first full term as mayor, and City Councilmembers Jessica Abbott, Rosemary Wilson and Sabrina Wooten voted for the project. A fifth, City Councilmember Michael Berlucchi, voted against it. He joined Councilmembers Barbara Henley, a farmer who represent the Princess Anne District and understands the real stakes here, and John Moss, who holds an at-large seat. Moss, by the way, is not a fan of the ARP. He made a principled vote.
The Independent News does not endorse people seeking political office, but it serves the rural area and supports farming. Those who voted for this project have their merits and can remind you what they are. Consider this: Berlucchi is the only person seeking reelection in 2020 who stood up for Virginia Beach farmers and our rural communities.
© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC