By Mark J. Fitzgibbons
The Boneta Bill is the most discussed bill in Virginia's 45-day legislative session that opened on January 9. It is not only terrific model legislation for protecting freedom, it is providing a great lesson about who is for liberty and who's not. It is a battleground between the little guys and gals versus jealous, territorial special interests and political insiders.
The Boneta Bill, H.B. 1430, was introduced by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter. It is named after 'Pitchfork Protest' farmer Martha Boneta. The bill is noteworthy because it adds "teeth" to protecting freedom and property rights.
Martha Boneta gained national attention last year for being threatened with fines for hosting a birthday party at her farm for eight 10-year-old-girls without a permit. She ended up paying $500 to appeal these charges brought by a testy bureaucrat with an agenda, who actually said on record that Martha was "out of line" for appealing. And bureaucrats wonder why people despise them.
As outrageous as that was, it's merely the tip of the iceberg. Martha's quaint farm store that was open just seven hours per week has been shut down even though she had abusiness license. The reason? She sold produce, organic tea from herbs in her garden, wool fiber from her rescued sheep and alpacas, postcards with pictures of goats from her farm, necklaces with feathers made from her rescued emus, and homemade pies. Maybe it was the prayers that she and college interns said over the crops and animals that offended the bureaucrat.
Without ever doing an onsite investigation or having direct evidence, Fauquier County's zoning czar Kimberley Johnson charged that Martha was selling farm items not produced at her farm, which Johnson claimed was a violation of a zoning ordinance. See comment about bureaucrats above.
Martha's plight -- and the fact that she stood up to this property dictator and the county government -- has brought attention to the bullying tactics of local governments that abuse zoning ordinances to deprive farmers and others of their property and constitutional rights.
In steps Scott Lingamfelter and his Boneta Bill, H.B. 1430. It amends Virginia's Right to Farm Act (RFA) in three simple ways.
First, it clarifies that the RFA includes the commerce of farming and farmers. It covers byproducts so that farmers may sell value-added goods that they have traditionally sold for centuries such handmade farm crafts, goats milk soap, beeswax candles, and wool-woven items.
It allows farmers to sell limited amounts of "incidental" items such as beverages, art, books, and artifacts such as old farm tools. There is a 50% cap on revenues from such incidental items so that farms remain farms, and are not converted into mega-marts. This preserves agricultural zoning for people who wish to live in rural communities. It actually helps small farmers survive economically, which preserves farm lands.
Next, the Boneta Bill expressly protects constitutional rights on farm property, making void zoning ordinances that infringe on First (speech, religion), Second, Fourth (prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures) Ninth and Tenth Amendment rights. If you believe it is a given that constitutional rights are already protected, you're obviously not following Supreme Court and other judicial rulings.
Thirdly, and this is particularly where the bill is a great model, it provides remedies against counties and county officials who violate the RFA. Counties may now violate the RFA with near impunity because the RFA did not include remedies, and the amendments simply add teeth to protect these important farming rights.
If this bill sounds like it should be a slam-dunk, you're with about 90 percent of the people weighing in on the bill.
Then Virginia Farm Bureau stepped in. Farm Bureau is the insurance company that is the equivalent of AARP for farmers. It believes that it is the gatekeeper of all legislation affecting farmers. Farm Bureau was not consulted before the Boneta Bill was introduced, and so it issued a statement opposing the bill. Farm Bureau then told Martha that she obviously "doesn't understand politics" because she failed to get their blessing.
Their new motto apparently is, "Government of the Farm Bureau, for the Farm Bureau, and by the Farm Bureau."
This politically tone-deaf arrogance drew an immediate reaction from Boneta Bill supporters, who are polling at 90 percent at the legislative tracking service Richmond Sunlight. Small farmers are announcing in disgust their intent to leave Farm Bureau, andcalls to boycott the insurance company are feverishly being removed from Farm Bureau's Facebook page.
Despite opposition by the real estate industry, 75 percent of Virginians voted this past November for property rights, passing a ballot initiative protecting against unfair eminent domain. The only real opponents of the Boneta Bill are anti-property rights bureaucrats like Fauquier County's Johnson.
Out of unprincipled, jealous protection of power, Farm Bureau has insulted its very own constituency. Let's hope Virginia legislators know better, and don't do the same.