Jeff Waters and Nadine Vazquez say their proposed, ropes-based obstacle course would draw up to 200 visitors a week and could offset annual losses of about $100,000 from their cattle, hog and produce business at Whitehall Farms in Clifton.
But the county is challenging the ropes-course idea in court, saying it isn’t a “natural activity” covered under the state’s 2014 agritourism law. They want Waters and Vasquez to pay for an expensive special permit and potential road and sewer improvements before going forward.
The lawsuit is part of a broader attempt by Virginia’s largest jurisdiction to gain more control as farms throughout the state increasingly launch side ventures that include hayrides, pumpkin patches, large festivals, concerts, birthday parties and art exhibits.
“Where we get into a little bit of a gray area is: What is the focus of these activities?” said Fairfax County zoning administrator Leslie Johnson. “What is agritourism, and what is just a wedding venue?”
Waters says the $200,000 that would come from renting land for the ropes course and selling farm-produced food to its visitors would enable him to invest more in the farm that his wife inherited from her father in 2013.
“I want to grow more on this farm, I want to up the amount of beef and pork we produce,” Waters said. “But all that costs money. And it’s money I don’t have, because I don’t have a ropes course.”
Agritourism — which includes tastings held at wineries and farm-based craft breweries — has grown into a $2.2 billion industry in Virginia, supporting 22,150 jobs, according to a study published last year by Virginia Tech. At the same time, 3,000 Virginia farms have shut down in the past decade, according to federal figures, amid global economic changes and development pressures.
Local officials say the impact of agritourism demands greater scrutiny in more densely populated areas, where small farms are near houses and schools. Fairfax, home to about 19 farms, is reviewing its zoning ordinance in relation to agritourism to come up with clearer definitions of what can be allowed without special permission, Johnson said.
The county hopes the Whitehall case can help bring more clarity to the state law, which defines agritourism as any activities on a farm that have “recreational, entertainment or educational purposes” and don’t have a “substantial impact” on the surrounding community. It was prompted by a zoning dispute in Fauquier County after a farm there began hosting birthday parties.
Farmers are nervously monitoring the Fairfax court battle.
“We need to sit down and evaluate what kind of chilling effect this is going to have on farmers’ ability to continue farming their land,” said Martha Boneta, owner of the Fauquier farm. “You can’t impose urban regulations on rural, agrarian living. It doesn’t work.”
Eric Cox, a co-owner of Cox Farms in Chantilly, said he wonders how the fight will affect his business. When his farm opened in the late 1970s, it relied primarily on produce, offering hayrides to preschoolers for 50 cents each. Now, Cox Farms gets most of its revenue from agritourism, which includes a “Fields of Fear” Halloween festival and a “Volcano slide” lined with hay bales.
As those operations have grown, the attitude toward zoning regulations has been, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Cox said. “They haven’t been getting any complaints about us, so we’ve just kept going.”
Martha Walker, an agriculture specialist at the Virginia Cooperative Extension run by Virginia Tech and Virginia State universities, said parties need to work closely together to figure out what makes sense for their communities.
“The public’s welfare is the priority, but farms need access to new revenue,” said Walker, who has advised farmers and zoning officials on acceptable uses of agritourism. “That flexibility has to be there.”
Waters said he and his wife have tried several ideas to raise more money. The couple abandoned plans for a paintball field amid fierce opposition from surrounding residents. After surveying his neighbors about the ropes-course idea, Waters informed the county of his plans early last year.
Johnson, the zoning administrator, ruled against the idea, citing traffic and septic concerns and saying the farm would have to purchase a $16,300 special-use permit, which could lead to additional road and sewer improvements.
Waters appealed to the county Board of Zoning Appeals, which initially sided with Johnson. In a second hearing last fall
, he presented more details about his plan and the board voted 4 to 3 in the farm’s favor. The county is seeking to nullify that decision in Fairfax County Circuit Court, with a trial expected by summer.
Clifton residents, who in recent years aggressively beat back plans for both a farm-based craft brewery and a winery, appear divided on the issue.
Hal Moore, who runs an organization called Protect the Occoquan Watershed, said the county should be able to scrutinize the ropes-course project through its special permit process, especially because the farm is located in an environmentally sensitive area.
“What the battle is over is not, per se, whether a ropes course is appropriate, but over whether it should go through that review process, and that’s what he’s claiming he should be totally exempt from,” Moore said.
Whitehall supporters argue that the project is in keeping with Clifton’s tranquil character.
“We’re not going to see this massive influx of traffic all of a sudden,” said Nicolas Geadah, whose family lives directly across from the farm’s main entrance on Popes Head Road and who fought the paintball idea. “I have no idea why the county is putting them through the ringer like this when there’s been pretty broad community support.”
Meanwhile, Waters has watched his legal bills climb.
The farm’s revenue mostly comes from the small number of cattle, pigs and chickens raised there, plus fresh honey and an array of vegetables and herbs. School field trips bring 3,000 students a year, and the farm hosts a corn maze, pumpkin patch and Christmas tree lot that attract another 3,000 annual visitors.
On a recent afternoon, Waters pointed out unfinished repairs he says he can’t afford to complete even as he deals with costly predators. A groundhog recently ate through $500 worth of broccoli, he said, while a barn owl had been feasting on the chickens.
Stopping to feed the cattle, Waters said that with the help of a friend’s daughter, he’s writing a comic book whose plot is based on a campaign to save Whitehall Farms by the herd’s leader: a brown Jersey steer named Henry.
The book, which portrays Fairfax’s zoning administrator as an all-powerful autocrat, will be bound and sold inside the farm store. “I gotta make money somehow,” Waters said, patting Henry.