As another session of the Virginia General Assembly presumably winds down—at press time, legislators were in an extended session, still trying to hammer out a state budget—Farm Bureau members can look back on a somewhat successful season.
"It’s difficult to gauge the level of success at this point, since the budget is still up in the air, but we think progress was made," said Martha Moore, VFBF director of governmental relations.
Leading the list of legislative issues again this year was eminent domain and its limitations. For weeks several proposed eminent domain bills generated intense discussion and negotiation, with no consensus reached on fixing eminent domain definitions of public use. Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, attempted to streamline the various proposed legislation into a comprehensive eminent domain bill that would work as a simple-but-clear declaration of the commonwealth’s power regarding the controversial subject.
The bill contained key elements from Virginia case law to protect private property rights and eliminated loopholes that could be utilized by developers to seize property via condemnation.
"More than 13 bills were pared down to two versions of the same bill, but after numerous changes and amendments the final proposal died due to a lack of consensus," Moore said. "That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because w e’d rather continue to work on this through the summer and have a comprehensive bill passed next year than to not get it exactly right."
Protecting riparian water rights
Another important bill proposal closely watched by Farm Bureau was HB 1185, sponsored by Del. Steven Landes, R-Weyers Cave. The bill addressed concerns regarding pending regulations governing withdrawal from Virginia’s surface waters. It would restore the regulatory balance between in-stream and off-stream uses; direct the State Water Control Board to minimize the effect of the regulations on an individual’s riparian rights to withdrawal water; and address specific concerns regarding the withdrawals from farm ponds and generally requiring permits from low-quantity users. More than 40 Farm Bureau members went to Richmond in February to voice their support for the bill.
"I don’t know if our members realize it or not, but their presence in front of the (House) agriculture committee in February made a huge impact," Moore said. "Our opposition was floating amendments to the bill at the time, and because of the large support group we brought with us, they were not offered."
The General Assembly passed the bill, which Gov. Tim Kaine attempted to amend. The legislature defeated those amendments, and at press time the bill was headed back to Kaine for signature or veto.
Biofuels incentive program
Thanks in part to intense lobbying and media coverage from Farm Bureau,
HB 680 and HB 1423 were passed. The bills, sponsored by Dels. Robert Wittman, R-Montross, and William Barlow, D-Smithfield, respectively, established the Biofuels Production Fund and the Biofuels Production Grant Incentive Program. The program offers grants to producers of neat biofuels—biodiesel or ethanol fuels that are not mixed with traditional fuels such as gasoline or diesel. To be eligible for a grant, producers must manufacture more than 10 million gallons of neat biofuels within the commonwealth in a calendar year, using feedstock originating within the United States. Qualifying producers may be granted 10 cents per gallon for produced neat biofuels. The program and fund would expire Dec. 31, 2016.
Other bills affecting farmers
Del. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, sponsored HB 982, which allows for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop regulations to prevent or control the spread of avian influenza. An amendment in the Senate further tightened the definition of a "live bird market," which addressed concerns of owners of backyard flocks.
Lewis also worked to pass HB 175, which creates an exemption to the purchase of a 5 percent overweight permit. The exemption is extended to registered farm vehicles only. It basically gives drivers of F-tag trucks a one-time exemption; if an overweight vehicle is cited, the operator would then have to purchase the overweight permit extension.
SB 38, sponsored by Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Martinsville, provides liability protection for agritourism activities. The bill provides protection from negligence for activities associated with agritourism activities—defined as any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment or educational purposes, to view or enjoy rural activities, including farming, wineries, ranching, historical, cultural, harvest-your-own activities, or natural activities and attractions.
Moore noted that the biggest disappointment of the 2006 legislative session was the assembly’s failure to pass the bill related to farm wineries’ right to self-distribute, sponsored by Del. Christopher Saxman, R-Staunton. The bill would have allowed small in-state and out-of-state wineries to self-distribute their wine. Without the bill, wineries cannot sell their wine to local retailers or restaurants without going through a wholesaler.