Ignoring farmers, City Council approves event venue on land zoned for agriculture in rural city

Steve Barnes, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District, is seen during the joint meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 25, of the Virginia Beach City Council and Planning Commission. Barnes was among those who opposed the Wolfe Bros project to turn land zoned for farming into an event venue in rural Virginia Beach. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

OCEANFRONT — Moments after a stunning reversal by the Planning Commission, the City Council on Tuesday, Aug. 25, voted to approve a conditional use permit so an event business can operate on land zoned for agriculture in rural Virginia Beach.

The decision by an 8-3 majority of the council was backed by many supporters in the room, but it came despite concerns of the agriculture industry, which opposed the project in an area where land-use decisions are meant to preserve land for farming.

The vote came in a joint session of the City Council and the Planning Commission at the Virginia beach Convention Center that was made necessary by a problem advertising a June meeting in which the Planning Commission recommended the City Council deny the application. That all changed Aug. 25.

Additionally, the council vote came over the objections of City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District, which includes Back Bay. She wanted to deny the application, but Councilmember Guy Tower, whose Beach District includes the main resort area, blocked that effort and, in a substitute motion, recommended approval of the conditional use permit for the event venue.

Wolfe Bros Events LLC can now go ahead with plans to hold up to 30 events such as weddings per year and an unlimited number of indoor events on a former horse farm off Princess Anne Road in the rural city. 

The business is not a farm, though it will grow some lavender on the property, according to an attorney representing the company.

Wooed by the idea of a bucolic wedding venue in the old county, the council voted for a project that farmers warned could undermine the business of farming, which relies upon land and zoning and planning practices that generally aim to steer development and nonfarming businesses elsewhere.

Wolfe Bros launched a successful campaign to overcome an earlier recommendation against the project by the Planning Commission and opposition by the city’s Agricultural Advisory Commission. Letters of support poured in, including from the local Chamber of Commerce, which pitched the project as a boon for the struggling tourism industry and did not address land use concerns in the southern city. 

Proponents of the event venue also packed an odd joint meeting of the Planning Commission and City Council at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, necessitated by the a need to essentially redo the earlier Planning Commission recommendations.

So the Planning Commission had a chance to vote again, and the body reversed its earlier recommendation, even though two people who had supported the project earlier were absent. And, following some back and forth on the dais, the City Council sealed the deal.

Henley was joined in the minority by City Councilmembers Michael Berlucchi, who represents the Rose Hall District, and John Moss, who holds an at-large seat.

R.J. Nutter, a lawyer representing Wolfe Bros, said the application is unique because it is the only application for an assembly use that has so many restrictions on it. He said the venue will be more than 1,300 feet from Princess Anne Road, has more than enough parking and can handle stormwater concerns.  And he spoke about his clients. 

“The applicants are Jeff and Dan Wolfe,” Nutter said. “They are brothers and Virginia Beach residents, long-term. They went to Kempsville High School.”

He said a number of people who have known them for years wrote letters or attended the meeting to show support.

“This isn’t going to be a parcel that has long-term agricultural use in any regard,” he said, arguing that the 63-acre parcel is a flag lot, and the majority of it is wooded and cannot be farmed. 

That said, Nutter added, “What they’ve done, they’ve reached a contract with Bennett’s Creek Nursery to plant lavender, and this will become a lavender farm when they’re able to do that. And it’s going to be the only farm like that in Virginia Beach.”

And, as he had said before, Pungo residents want to have events there.

Nutter said the applicants voluntarily deferred the project for nine months because the Agricultural Advisory Commission planned to draft a new ordinance to address assembly uses on farmland. “Nine months, and no ordinance, so finally we went forward … only to find there was still opposition from the ag group,” Nutter said.

But the ordinance isn’t coming any time soon, he said. And he said people who support Wolfe Bros were “virtually angry” following the initial Planning Commission vote in June at perceived treatment of the applicants. Supporters believe the project will preserve the rural nature of Virginia Beach while increasing the city tax base. “Yes there’s opposition, but not from everyone,” Nutter said.

The opposition, however, is from leaders of the agriculture community and others concerned about land use in the rural area of Virginia Beach – and how allowing a nonfarming commercial use on land zoned for agriculture could lead to other uses of farmland for nonfarming businesses.

During questions from the Planning Commission, Nutter said Wolfe Bros events would not board horses at the former horse farm.

Planning Commissioner Steve Barnes, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District, asked about agricultural uses of the site, a former horse farm.

“Are there any animals on the farm?” he asked.

“No, there are no animals,” Nutter said.

“But yet it’s a farm,” Barnes said.

“Yes, sir, we’re growing, in this case, the crop is lavender. …”

“In order to qualify as a farm, you have to be making money at it or at least attempting,” Barnes said.

“They will be making money on the lavender operation,” Nutter said.

Barnes said the farm has to be established. Nutter said there is no requirement.

“It can be zoned as agriculture,” Barnes said. “That doesn’t make it a farm.”

City Councilmember Aaron Rouse, who holds an at-large seat, asked about the lavender crop and whether the contract exists. Nutter said it does. City Councilmember Michael Berlucchi, who represents the Rose Hall District, asked, “So where will the lavender farming occur?”

Nutter said lavender would be grown along the length of the driveway of the flag lot leading into the greater property. He added that supporters have said the lavender will look and smell nice.

Barnes asked again about the lavender, and Nutter said the crop would be processed for oils on the property.

Barnes noted that there is a lot of lavender grown in North Carolina on much larger acreage.

“Well, good luck,” Barnes said.

Planning Commissioner Don Horsley, a farmer who holds an at-large seat, said the issue with the project is where it is located – on property zoned for agriculture.

“I just don’t think it’s the right location for it,” Horsley said.

“That’s the main problem that the agricultural community sees,” he said. “That you’ve got agriculture operations going on down there. We’ve got an agriculturally zoned property, which is less expensive than … commercial and industrial property. So they feel like people coming down buying agricultural land and then putting in a commercial business is probably not in the best interest of the industry of agriculture.”

In addition to the many letters of support included in the Planning Commission and City Council package of information about the project was opposition from the Agricultural Advisory Commission and Virginia Beach Farm Bureau.

“Farm Bureau is opposed to the application of the above referenced corporation to operate a commercial enterprise ‘event venue’ in the dead center of our rural, agricultural area in Virginia Beach,” Bobby Vaughan, president of Virginia Beach Farm Bureau, wrote in a letter on Wednesday, Aug. 19. “The use is not compatible with farming operations or our precious rural heritage and way of life. …

“[S]ome of you may remember those farming communities of Kempsville when we first became the city of Virginia Beach,” Vaughan wrote. “Those farming communities no longer exist. ‘Farming below Pungo’ is our last bastion of farming in Virginia Beach.”

The Agricultural Advisory Commission, comprised of farmers, also wrote a letter of opposition.

“The AAC has momentous concerns over a commercial business operating in an AG Zone and not a Commercial Zone area and for the safety related to event traffic that would be traveling the rural two-lane roads in this AG zone area,” members of the commission wrote on Friday, Aug. 21.

“If the proposed concept is approved, the landscape of agriculture could vastly change,” they added.

During the joint meeting, the Planning Commission listened to speakers supporting the project. The body voted again, this time reversing their earlier recommendation for denial of the Wolfe Bros application. 

After that, it was the City Council’s turn, and Henley argued against approving the conditional use permit, saying she was “distressed.”

Henley, echoing Horsley, said the term “wedding is not even mentioned in this application. It’s an assembly use, and this is a commercial convention center. It just talks about events. … But then there’s going to be this barn built. It’s not a barn. It’s a building designed to look like a barn. It’s a conference center.” 

Henley disputed the notion that the property cannot be farmed, noting earlier comments that much of the Wolfe Bros site cannot be cultivated.

“If we’re saying that a 15 or 20 acre parcel cannot be farmed, we’re in trouble because we’ve got a lot of them down there,” Henley said. “I think we’d better have an education in agriculture.”

She also said the city has the first purchase of development rights program in the commonwealth – the agricultural reserve program, or ARP – and that loosening requirements of agricultural-zoned land may weaken that program. 

The city has preserved 10,000 acres through the ARP because landowners gave up their development rights.

“I think we owe it to those people to make sure they can make a living in agriculture,” Henley said. “And we’re not going to do it if we let it be taken over by commercial uses.”

The Wolfe Bros application is “looking for an ancillary use so it can claim to be farming,” Henley said, noting the lavender. She recommended denial of the application

Moss noted that he is not a supporter of the ARP because he believes the city can control land use through zoning. 

That’s why he would not support the project – “because it’s doing the very thing we’re paying money to try to prevent,” he said.

He noted that requesting a conditional use permit does not mean an applicant is entitled to one.

“We should be looking at the fundamental land use decisions,” Moss said, agreeing with the idea that this application, if passed, represents a fundamental change.

And Moss said, “If one of our goals is to preserve agriculture … and the people who are doing the industry we say we want to preserve are telling us this puts that in danger and undermines the investments we have been making, I think we should listen to that.”

City Councilmember Guy Tower then said the decision has been a difficult one, and he said he respects farmers but he would support the project.

“It is not immune from change,” Tower said of the rural area in the southern part of the city, “and I believe that this kind of change where it supports other goals … You know there are other issues other than simply preserving agriculture. There is economic development, for example.”

Tower said the “highest and best use” of the property is as a wedding venue, and it would bring people to Virginia Beach and to the rural communities. 

Tower, whose district includes the main resort area, made a substitute motion to approve the project. Several other council members spoke in support of it.

Ultimately, the council voted, 8-3, to approve the project with Berlucchi, Henley and Moss in the minority.

Mayor Bobby Dyer, speaking during an interview this past week, said the Planning Commission changing its recommendation helped him make up his mind. 

He said the Wolfe Bros project would get people to visit rural areas of Virginia Beach and perhaps expose more people to agricultural businesses there.

“It’s getting people down to a jewel of our city,” he said.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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3 thoughts on “Ignoring farmers, City Council approves event venue on land zoned for agriculture in rural city

  1. This is indeed sad news. I remember when the fight against Harvest Farms was going on when I tried explaining what it would mean to Pungo and the community I thought people would be as concerned as I was. Shockingly they weren’t and looked at me like “why should I care about that?”. It literally has to be in their backyard before it becomes a problem. People will start paying attention when it gets so bad it’s too late to fix. Ironically, the vote was 8-3 which is the usual tally for the VB school board (another battle in itself).
    This has been such a tough year for everyone and you just get so tired of fighting over everything. Hopefully some positive change can be made in November! Another great article, thank you for keeping people aware!!

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