After formation of urban agriculture committee in Virginia Beach, renewed debate about its role

City Councilmember Barbara Henley, seen here during the Princess Anne District forum on Thursday, May 28, 2021, has raised questions about the need for a newly-created Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee to continue on as a standing committee after it studies specific issues. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Ed. — From the Sunday, June 6, print edition.


OCEANFRONT — The City Council on Tuesday, June 1, set initial one-year terms for people who will serve on a new committee to tackle certain agriculture-related issues in the suburbs, but what started as a procedural step became a discussion about its scope and how long it should stick around.

The council in May created an Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee to study issues such as whether hens or miniature pigs might be kept by people who do not live in the city’s agricultural districts. The group will also look at a citywide composting program. The issues were spelled out in the resolution that created the committee.

City Councilmembers Jessica Abbott, who had advocated for allowing backyard hens in the suburbs and represents the Kempsville District, and Michael Berlucchi, who represents the Rose Hall District, led the effort. 

However, some are still seeking clarity about the scope of the new committee’s work and whether it might infringe on the Virginia Beach Agricultural Advisory Commission, a longstanding group comprised mainly of working farmers and concerned with policy related to the industry of farming in rural communities.

On Tuesday, June 1, Abbott sought to set four-year terms for members of the new committee, which could be filled with appointees in the coming month. City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District, balked at this proposed timeframe. 

Henley asked whether the new group would be permanent or study certain issues and make recommendations before disbanding. This echoed comments Henley made in May, when Abbott said she hoped it would be a standing committee that might address other issues.

Henley asked to defer the motion to set initial terms to give the Agricultural Advisory Commission a chance to meet and make comments about the new committee.

“We have an Agricultural Advisory Commission now that serves the entire city,” Henley said, “and I think it’s critical they have an opportunity to have input.”

Henley said she didn’t think the new group was ready to have four-year terms.

City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at-large seat, said the new group would address issues in suburban areas north of the rural communities below the city’s Green Line. And Abbott noted that the Agricultural Advisory Commission, unlike the new Urban Agriculture Committee, acts as a liaison between the rural community and the council.

“By its definition, I want this to be a liaison from the suburban and urban parts of our community to City Council to inform us on what they want to see change,” Abbott said, adding that she wants to get people appointed and move forward with the work of the group.

“There are a lot of people – not just chicken people – but there are a lot of people who feel very unheard and have felt that way for a decade,” Abbott said.

Berlucchi noted that some farmers and agricultural commissioners have reached out to him in concern. “Any slight that creating this committee would create toward the Agricultural Advisory Commission was unintentional,” he said.

After discussion, Moss suggested one-year terms.

“I could support the one-year terms,” said City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat.

“I’m comfortable with that,” Abbott said.

Henley’s motion to defer setting terms failed on a 4-7 vote. Mayor Bobby Dyer, Abbott, Berlucchi, Moss and Councilmembers Aaron Rouse, Guy Tower and Sabrina Wooten voted to proceed with setting the term for committee members. Vice Mayor Jim Wood, Wilson and Councilmember Louis Jones voted with Henley in the minority.

Then the council voted, 8-3, for one-year terms, rather than four-year terms. Henley, Jones and Wood were in the minority.

Abbott hopes the new committee will stick around, and she said some issues, such as whether to allow backyard hens, may be more complicated and take time to study.

“It will stand as long as there are issues to address,” Abbott said during an interview. “That’s my intention.”

A new committee will study issues such as whether hens will be allowed in neighborhoods outside of Virginia Beach’s agricultural areas. This hen, photographed in Pungo in 2018, lived on land zoned for agriculture. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

© 2021 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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