Keeping Farmers (and Children) Safe from Bureaucratic Bullies

Fauquier Free Citizen

Why the Remedies in the Boneta Bill Are Fair, Appropriate and Needed

The Boneta Bill, H.B. 1430, amends the Virginia Right to Farm Act.  It includes remedies that add “teeth” to protecting farmers’ rights.  The remedies are no more than the amount of fines that counties may impose on farmers plus attorneys’ fees if the counties (1) are sued by farmers, which is not likely, and (2) are found to have violated the Right to Farm Act. If anything, the remedies in the Boneta Bill are not strong enough.

Martha Boneta was threatened by Fauquier County with fines of $5,000 per violation under charges that she held a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls without a permit and a “site plan,” advertised one wine tasting, sold postcards with pictures of her rescued farm animals, sold wool fiber products from her sheep and alpacas, and sold organic tea from herbs grown in her garden even though she had a business license.  She paid $500 to appeal these unjust administrative charges and threats.  The county zoning administrator said at her hearing that Martha was “out of line” for appealing these charges.  Martha’s farm store that was open just seven hours per week is now closed because of the uncertain, unlawful and unscrupulous actions of the county.

1. Counties have litigation liability insurance; farmers do not. County officials will not go out of pocket on legal fees when they violate farmers’ rights.  Farmers go out of pocket on legal fees to defend against overreaching and unlawful actions by county officials against them.

2. Frivolous lawsuits against counties will be quickly dismissed.  Bureaucratic administrative zoning actions against small farmers do not follow rules of evidence, can violate farmers’ rights without due process, and can shut down lawful farm activities.

3. Sovereign immunity. This is the doctrine that “the King can do no wrong.” Ask Martha Boneta whether county officials can do no wrong.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity is itself limited to good faith violations of law and mistakes, not intentional acts beyond the duties of government officials, and may be limited by the legislature at any time. Not long ago the Virginia legislature limited sovereign immunity under the Virginia Tort Claims Act, § 8.01-195.3.

Police departments are subject to lawsuits, damages and attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and 1988 for violating constitutional rights under color of state law, yet this does nothing to impede strong enforcement of the law.  Clerks of Virginia county courts have personal liability for certain acts, such as violations of fiduciary duties for funds and wrongful discharge (VanBuren v. Grubb).

This provision of the Boneta Bill may be the most popular of all. County officials should be required to do what is expected of all citizens, which is torespect and follow the law.  The remedies provision is a prophylactic way to help prevent violations of rights and the Right to Farm Act, and will not impede good and lawful enforcement.

Boneta Bill supporters stand shoulder to shoulder with county officials who may be their friends, neighbors, relatives, church members, etc., who are conscientious and law abiding in their conduct.

The Boneta Bill remedies provision:

3.2-302.1Remedies

A. Any county that violates any provision of this chapter shall be liable to aggrieved persons in the amounts equal to the fines and penalties that the county seeks to impose on such aggrieved persons, plus attorney fees.

B. Any official or employee of a county who violates any provision of this chapter, or whose interpretation or enforcement of duties operates contrary to this chapter, shall be personally liable to aggrieved persons in the amount equal to the fines and penalties that such county official or employee seeks to impose on such aggrieved persons, plus attorney fees, and shall otherwise be subject to the penalties that the official or employee seeks to impose, whether civil or criminal. Such official or employee shall not be protected by sovereign immunity for causes of action in trespass or tort.

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