Citizens Stage Pitchfork Rally Against York County Rezoning

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pitchfork rally Yorktown, Virginia

Before the rally officially started, citizens gathered on the York Hall front lawn.

By Shelby Mertens

Citizens gathered in the front lawn of York Hall on Wednesday, May 14 with pitchforks and signs to protest the York County Board of Supervisors plan to consider rezoning the York Point neighborhood. The rally took place right before the York County Planning Commission’s public hearing.

The board of supervisors has proposed R14-66, a resolution that rally protesters say will strip them of their agricultural rights. If passed, over 7,000 properties in York County would be prohibited from conducting commercial agricultural operations York Point is currently zoned as Resource Conservation (RC) and a special-use permit is required in order to operate a business there. The county is looking at rezoning the district to R33, which would create a new residential district.

R14-66 is a response to the General Assembly’s passage of Senate Bill 51, which prevents localities from imposing regulations and requiring special-use permits for various activities at agricultural operations — such as agritourism events and the preparation and sale of foods otherwise complaint with state law —and House Bill 1089, which creates a standard definition of agricultural products and protects aquaculture as a form of agriculture.

The rally started at 6 p.m. just an hour before the public forum with a crowd of more than 50 people. Delegate Brenda Pogge, representing the 96th House District, was the first to hop on top of the truck bed and deliver her speech. Pogge started off saying that the state legislature ruled that aquaculture is agriculture and that the state code is finally consistent with other legislation that defines aquaculture as such. Pogge stressed that the issue was a policy issue, not a political issue.

“The policy now, for the state of Virginia, is yes, aquaculture is agriculture,” Pogge told the crowd. “It’s (aquaculture) an industry that plants seeds and reaps a harvest … and so it was the right policy to make … so finally now the state code is consistent.”

Pogge called the rezoning move “draconian.” Although she does not represent the York Point area, Pogge said she is concerned and that she feels the emotions felt by the people of York Point.

“I represent James City and York County. Both of these places are the beginnings of democracy in the United States,” she said. “Both of these places have such historical significance. Both of these places represent liberty to all of us and we’re in this nation right now watching our liberties get trampled.”

Oyster farmer Anthony Bavuso, whose oyster operations are located in the York Point neighborhood, also spoke out at the rally against the rezoning plans. Bavuso has been sued by the county for operating his oyster farm without a special-use permit, which Bavuso said was denied to him.

“Tonight we are here to protest the largest land grab that I have seen in the 38 years that I’ve lived in York County,” Bavuso said. “These proposals represent an assault on the county we love, to show the true objective of our board of supervisors, to turn York County into York City.”

Bavuso said the oyster population is down to one percent of its pre-colonial era population as water quality declines. He said he started oyster farming to help clean the bay.

“Our founding fathers, many of them who walked these very grounds, fought for these liberties. We will do the same. We will not go quietly,” he said. “Please ask (the planning commission) to uphold the state law and to stop trying to steal our rights from us and remind them that this is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Another York County oyster farmer, Greg Garrett, was also present at the rally. Garrett previously sued the county for requiring him to obtain a special-use permit in an agricultural district. Although Garrett won in circuit court, the county appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court and won. Garrett says he applied for a special-use permit and was promptly denied.

Although Garrett’s property is not located in York Point, the county also sued him as well for continuing his oyster operations without a special-use permit.

Garrett apologized to the crowd for the conflict that has risen over the right to conduct commercial aquaculture operations.

“First off, I want to apologize to everybody that lives in York County, that you are caught in a crossfire of what’s happening for a couple of oyster farmers,” Garrett said. “There’s no excuse in the fight that you’re having to wage and that your property rights are at risk because of the attack ontwo individual property owners that are doing no harm.”

But Garrett told the crowd that the issue is not about his or Bavuso’s oysters, but rather, it’s about keeping the government in check.

“Removing property rights is wrong. The government itself really is not the problem, but left unchecked some of its people can control the government. That is the problem,” Garrett said. “Our government is here to ensure freedoms, not remove it. To protect us, not punish us. To bring justice, not personal retaliation. To bring order to our society, not dominion over our families. To secure our liberties, not remove them.”

The planning commission’s public hearing then began at 7 p.m. and the room was filled in minutes. Several people were sent to an overflow room downstairs.

In a presentation on the issue, York County Planning Commission’s Chairman Mark Suiter said that the aquaculture activity exercised in York County is not the “traditional waterman tending crab-pots or toning oysters.” He said the county is concerned about the intensity of land activity it draws and that the special-use permit process allows the county to evaluate each property for its suitability to perform these activities.

Suiter said any existing, lawfully established operation would be “grandfathered” and allowed to continue operations. However, these operations must have a special-use permit in order receive thegrandfather status.

The board of supervisors has laid out three different options for the planning commission to consider. Option A would prohibit new agriculture and aquaculture operations in an RC and RR district. Option B would create a new residential district in which new agriculture and aquaculture operations are not permitted. This option would rezone York Point to R33. Option C would establish performance standards for the York Point neighborhood and could apply to other nearby areas. The planning commission can recommend one of these options by itself, or a combination of many.

Some of the proposed performance standards for aquaculture include: a 100 ft. minimum lot width at the shoreline, 100 ft. minimum separation between the site of workboat docking and offloading activities and adjacent properties and outdoor storage only in the rear yard and not within 25 ft. of the property line.

The proposed performance standards for agriculture operations include a minimum 2-acre lot area, 100 ft. setback from residential property line for any fenced confinement area for livestock with less than 200 sq. ft. per animal and a 25 ft. minimum separation from any property line.

The presentation showed that there are a total of 498 Reserve Conservation (RC) properties in York Point, 174 of which are waterfront, and a total of 7,187 Residential Rural (RR) properties. The RC and RR properties total 7,685.

When it came time for the public to speak, several York Point residents voiced their support for the rezoning.

“I’m here to speak in favor of resolution 14-66 to establish residential district R33 and reclassify the York Point neighborhood to a single family residential (district),” said the first speaker. “I am in favor of individual rights, but that should include protecting the individual rights of the homeowners. The exercise of individual rights should not be allowed to personally affect the lives of others as it is in this case.”

One woman, who lives near a commercial oyster operation, said she and her family have been negatively affected by the operations.

“My home is on the same private residential lane as a commercial oyster operation. I truly appreciate this opportunity to be here to tell you that this has negatively impacted my family as you consume the oxygen we breathe,” she said. “I’m here before you asking for your help in protecting us from the adverse impacts that we are currently experiencing and will worsen if commercial aquaculture is allowed without restriction in our residential neighborhood.”

Others simply stated that they want their residential neighborhood to remain quiet. One man said most of those who oppose the rezoning are those who do not live in the York Point neighborhood.

“I am in favor of the rezoning. I would like to see York Point remain a quiet residential neighborhood and without commercial oyster farms,” the man said. “If you took a poll here in the room tonight, I think you would find the vast majority of those who are residents of York Point favor the rezoning and I think you’d find the vast majority of those who are not from York Point are opposed to the rezoning.”

However, Garrett recently told the Virginia Free Citizen that his oyster farm is quiet with no smell and that all complaints against him have been hypothetical concerns.

But some residents do not want commercial businesses in their neighborhood.

“Commercial businesses have no place in such a small community,” another resident said. “The tales I’ve heard tonight about rights being taken away from many who don’t even live in the area are absurd.”

One woman in support of the rezoning said the idea to rezone York Point was started by York Point residents, not the county.

“I’m one of the York Point residents that signed the original petition to rezone York Point. This was nothing instigated by the county,” she said. “We came together as citizens to request a rezoning. This petition was completed long before the Senate subcommittee meeting in Richmond in which HB1089 passed, which did away with the SUP (special-use permit).”

However, there were plenty of anti-rezoning supporters in the room.

“If this has just been something to deal with York Point instead of threatening all of York County and talking about grandfathering, you wouldn’t of had that pitchfork rally out here where people got upset and where we stood up to defend our rights,” one man said. “The board of supervisors think they can do anything they want with our property and not have any consequences … think about what you’re doing and remember that we the people have rights.”

The board of supervisors has asked for the planning commission’s recommendations by June 30, when the board will make a final decision. However, another public hearing will likely take place before the board makes a final decision.

Shelby Mertens

About Shelby Mertens

Shelby Mertens is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Mass Communications - Journalism. She was the arts and culture editor of The Commonwealth Times, VCU's independent student press. Shelby was a blogging and social media intern for Gandzee, an online retail startup in Richmond. She covered the General Assembly session last spring for Capital News Service on behalf of over 70 news publications across the state. She has also published work on WTVR-CBS 6's website, a part of the iPadJournos project at VCU.