After controversy, Virginia Beach will refocus on assembly uses for land zoned for farming


COURTHOUSE — Following the recent approval for a nonfarming commercial venue that will operate on farmland in the rural city, city officials are renewing efforts to create clear guidelines for assembly uses such as weddings on land zoned for agriculture, including in the rural area of Virginia Beach.

The fact that such guidelines were not in place despite two years of conversation about them contributed to a controversial 8-3 City Council decision on Tuesday, Aug. 25, to let a business hold up to 30 outdoor events per year and an unlimited number of functions inside a venue that will be built to resemble a barn in Back Bay.

Approval of a conditional use permit for Wolfe Bros Events, LLC, was opposed by farmers, including Virginia Beach Farm Bureau and the Virginia Beach Agricultural Advisory Commission, but supported by tourism proponents, including the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District and argued against allowing the project, has said the vote may weaken the agricultural reserve program, a purchase-of-development-rights program backed by city tax dollars to preserve farmland here.

The vote is done, but assembly uses on land zoned for agriculture remain an issue, and officials are considering ways to control or prevent them in the rural areas of the city while considering whether they may be suitable elsewhere in Virginia Beach.

“We’re working on how to find an appropriate location for them and not conflict with the agricultural uses,” said Planning Director Bobby Tajan, who has met with Henley.

Henley, during an interview, said she has met with two farmers, Steve Barnes and Don Horsley, who are members of the Virginia Beach Planning Commission, in preparation for a meeting in October of the Virginia Beach Agricultural Advisory Commission. Discussion included the planning and agriculture departments.

Henley said they will look at allowable uses in agricultural zoning, and potentially work toward prohibiting additional assembly uses in the rural area of the city, where land use decisions are supposed to be made to protect the agriculture industry.

“We believe below the Green Line area, pretty much it’s not,” Henley said, speaking of the suitability of assembly uses on agricultural land. “There may be places above the Green Line where it may be appropriate.”

Potential restrictions might focus upon places “where we have active agriculture and where we want to preserve agriculture,” Henley said. “We don’t want to be putting in uses next to active agriculture that are in conflict.”

The matter is expected to be discussed during the meeting of the Virginia Beach Agricultural Advisory Commission scheduled for 7 p.m., Monday, Oct. 12.

City Agriculture Director David Trimmer said it is likely the planning department will discuss approaches during the meeting. The meeting, which is open to the public, may not be held at its normal spot at Building 14, however, due to early in-person voting in the same location.

The commission, which consists of farmers and advises the City Council, had opposed the Wolfe Bros project, but it has grappled with the wider issues of assembly uses on farmland, including property in the ARP.

In an interview, Mayor Bobby Dyer said he will reach out to Barnes and Horsley to discuss concerns of the agriculture community about the Wolfe Bros vote and to help with approaches toward assembly uses. Dyer was part of the council majority that approved the Wolfe Bros conditional use permit.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

Ed. — This originally ran in print on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. It was archived online in November 2020.

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