Virginia vintners taste the police state

from Mark J. Fitzgibbons

While the Obama administration is busy eviscerating private property rights at the federal level, Republican-controlled Fauquier County, Va., has decided to follow suit in its own way.

Fauquier’s Board of Supervisors recently passed a winery ordinance that tramples private property rights and some fundamental civil liberties.

The county, which is located about an hour west of Washington, calls itself an agricultural community. Its scenic, sprawling farmlands have become home to a growing number of wineries. Vintners have discovered that Fauquier’s climate and rich soil are ideal for growing grapes.

Most of the wineries are mom and pop operations. Some, though, have been more creative in marketing, employing more people, and generating revenue. The county thinks such success must be punished.

At the center of all this is the county zoning administrator, a bureaucratic czar named Kimberley Johnson, whose bullying and heavy-handed enforcement tactics have resulted in calls for her dismissal by county farmers and residents. Johnson was recently the subject of a citizen-farmer “pitchfork protest” in a matter in which she fined one farmer for conducting a pumpkin carving and a birthday party for eight little girls without the proper permit.

The winery ordinance is Obama-esque, passed under the pretext that it protects the health, safety and welfare of the public. It forces wineries to close at 6 p.m. and prohibits sale of food — something that goes quite safely with a taste of wine — unless the wineries obtain special permits from the zoning administrator.

The ordinance lists prohibited winery activities such as hot air balloon rides, farmers’ markets, and mini-golf, which assuredly threaten the health, safety and welfare of the public, right?

Among the prohibited activities, the ordinance includes anything else determined by the zoning administrator “to be similar in nature or in impact to” the listed activities. That’s the equivalent allowing police officers to ticket drivers for nearly anything they wish.

The winery ordinance comes with potential criminal penalties, yet it has weak standards of evidence and due process to protect the innocent. It’s a civil liberties and property rights nightmare on its face. Chicago politics and even dictatorships mask their tyrannical abuses of law better than this.

Fauquier gave its zoning czar the same type of unlimited discretion to decide whether to issue special permits to stay open past 6 p.m., to host events, and to determine entry road surface conditions. This gives the zoning administrator unfettered control over the very existence of wineries, and creates conditions under which vintners must fear her every next move.

Perhaps the most offensive provision of the ordinance authorizes “private personal gatherings” at wineries. Someone obviously forgot to tell Fauquier officials that in America, we don’t need government permission for private personal gatherings on our own property.

Yet even in their contempt for the freedom of assembly and private property rights, Fauquier officials limited the definition of “private personal gathering” to owners who reside at or adjacent to their wineries, and who do not market their wine at such gatherings. This means no winery signs — no bottle labels, even, when owners hold private personal gatherings on their property, because that’s marketing.

The Fauquier ordinance clearly violates Virginia’s Right to Farm Act, which guarantees agriculture activities of growing and selling. No county may use ordinances to inhibit these rights.

Vintners are challenging the Fauquier ordinance in courts and are seeking legislative relief in Richmond. Perhaps, though, they and their patrons should form a Wine Party, and dispel the Fauquier government officials responsible for this lawbreaking and these trespasses on private rights.


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