Column: City decisions about land use have real consequences for farms and rural communities

Karen Beardslee Kwasny [Courtesy]

VIRGINIA BEACH — Weather wreaks havoc on farmland?  

So, too, do city decisions.  

It’s a bit overwhelming — the myriad articles about the way our ever-changing climate affects our farmland.  

A quick look at the news across the country over the past six months makes it clear — the worry is significant and real. Taken as whole, these articles also reveal the diversity of responses and solutions. No matter where you stand on the cause of our environmental issues, the results are pretty much the same — our farms are in jeopardy.  

Still, it strikes me as odd that even as we highlight the danger of climate change to our agricultural land and our future food sources, we underplay the industry’s greatest threat: here, as elsewhere, that threat is a subversive adversary and a supposed friend.

It’s city government.  

In Virginia Beach, our city government charges carefully crafted committees and commissions with reviewing land use decisions for compliance with area guidelines and with respect for the city’s comprehensive plan, its bible of land use policy, which encompasses its short-term fragile future.  These appointed volunteers work to balance these guidelines and plans with market fluctuations and, now, climate-related issues that affect how the land can and should be used in the future.  

Never was this balancing act more out of balance than at the joint Planning Commission and City Council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 25, when an event venue on agriculturally zoned land in the rural area of our city was under consideration. 

The Planning Commission had previously recommended denial of the application. But a date-publication error necessitated a vote retake. 

What happened in the interim was to be expected. City leaders and officials – appointed and elected – were romanced and warmed to the idea of weddings in the country. Citizens who loved that idea for themselves or their kids and grandkids were galvanized to step up and fight for the venue. To check all the boxes, ancillary agricultural use was arranged for the land that supporters of the project who were at the meeting continued to argue was unsuitable for farming. In the end, the view from the barn was a zero-sum game.  

To justify the agricultural community’s losses in relation to the private landowner’s gains, there’s a resurrection of the old self-serving myth about land as a farm family’s legacy. 

This polemic goes that a shortage of farmers in the next generation necessitates leaving the gate open for agricultural land to go to development or permits that allow large-scale commercial use without continued or new farming on the land. What else, after all, can farmers do with their land if no one is left or interested in farming?

I get these concerns. Most of us do. But encouraging alternative uses at the expense of farming is not the answer. Virginia Beach is unique in that our rural area is designed to support and sustain our agricultural industry, which is key to our overall vitality.  

As one council member pointed out during the vote discussion, at no other time in Virginia Beach’s history has it been more evident that we must preserve our food source land for just that – producing food. That is not only to sustain our city from an economic standpoint, but it’s to sustain each and every one of us from a sustenance perspective. 

Yet, with one simple vote, all of that was undermined. The alarm has been sounded: the tourism industry could benefit from a new view of our rural area, one that imagines hearts and flowers, the sparkle of matrimonial diamonds and the tinkle of wedding bells.

Business, after all, is good for business.  

What could be better for Virginia Beach economics than a place for a new tourism brand?   

Sure, there are always winners and losers when it comes to land use decisions in Virginia Beach. However, the “You win some, you lose some” response just won’t cut it in relation to the agricultural land in our rural area. 

Simply put, we just can’t afford to lose any more of it — not today and surely not for the future.

The author is a writer and former Virginia Beach Planning Commissioner and college professor who lives in Ashville Park.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *