A constitutional amendment to tighten the definition of public use under eminent domain passed in the General Assembly this year.
It marked one of the biggest legislative successes this past winter for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, which has lobbied for the amendment.
The constitutional amendment, which also ensures that property owners are justly compensated when their land is taken for public use, also must pass in the 2012 General Assembly in order to be on the ballot for voters next year.
"This is the first step toward further securing private property rights that farmers absolutely need," said Trey Davis, VFBF assistant director of governmental relations. "Our members’ businesses are tied to the land that they own and rent, and while government sometimes must take land for the public good, we believe that should happen for legitimate public use only.
"Amending the state constitution would help ensure that private land is not taken so it can be given to another private entity."
New animal care bill
Eminent domain reform wasn’t Farm Bureau’s only legislative success in this year’s General Assembly session.
A bill that establishes a new code section spelling out basic care for agricultural animals passed overwhelming in the House and Senate before being signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The legislation was developed by people familiar with accepted animal husbandry practices.
"We believe that this law will demonstrate our farmers’ commitment to the welfare of agricultural animals," said Lindsay Reames, VFBF assistant director of governmental relations.
The legislation resulted from collaboration among legislators, representatives of animal shelters, the office of the attorney general, the state veterinarian’s office, Farm Bureau, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association and the Virginia Association of Counties, among others.
The law mandates that farmers give their animals proper feed, water and veterinary care. It is intended to penalize individuals who fail to provide for the basic needs of their livestock.
Existing animal cruelty laws did not allow charging livestock or poultry owners with neglect if the situation is not serious enough to meet the threshold of cruelty. The new legislation will allow for earlier intervention in cases of animal neglect.
$34 million for BMPs
Farmers also received help implementing best management practices with cost-share money and technical assistance. In its budget, the General Assembly allocated $34 million in cost-share money for agricultural BMPs, including $2.96 million to help local soil and water conservation districts aid in advising farmers about the best conservation practices for their operations. Farm Bureau pushed for this funding, said Martha Moore, VFBF vice president of governmental relations.
Also focused on water quality is successful legislation that will allow farmers who implement a resource management plan to be considered in full compliance with any load allocation contained in a total maximum daily load established under the federal Clean Water Act and the Virginia Chesapeake Bay TMDL Watershed Implementation Plan.
On other issues, "we moved the ball forward, but full funding of Virginia Cooperative Extension and compensation to farmers for wildlife damage are issues that are far from being resolved," Moore said.
Farm Bureau had lobbied for enough money and positions to provide one agriculture Extension agent, one 4-H agent and one administrative assistant for each locality, but that didn’t happen. "We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we didget transparency, accountability and $1.494 million and 25 positions for Extension," Moore said. "That’s a good start."
In the area of wildlife damage, Farm Bureau wanted the legislature to change the procedures for lawfully killing animals that damage agricultural operations, including elk. That legislation was defeated, but a committee will review the issue before the next session.
"On all of our issues, we made progress or had a success, and even where we didn’t have a success, we moved the ball forward," Moore said. "This just shows that personal relationships between our members and their legislators pays off."