by Shelby Mertens, Virginia Free Citizen

Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, has introduced a bill that would give farmers and landowners’ property rights remedies against local zoning laws. The bill is inspired by the Martha Boneta debacle last year.

But unlike last year’s “Boneta Bill,” HB1219 extends beyond farmers to anyone who owns property. The bill also tackles other issues such as the constitutional rights of farmers.

HB1219 says that local governments that violate constitutional rights through zoning must pay their victims the amount of the fines they sought to impose and the actual damages, including attorney fees. The bill also allows the Virginia Attorney General to intervene on behalf of victims and provides protection for government employees who report violations of the law.

Mark Fitzgibbons, a constitutional lawyer, has been heavily involved in the Martha Boneta case since first learning of the issue at a fundraiser last year. He said the remedies are the most important of the bill.

“There is great but underutilized precedent for remedies against government officials who abuse their power to violate the rights of citizens,” Fitzgibbons said in a press release. “HB1219’s remedies mean Virginians don’t need to go broke protecting their rights on their own property.”

He said there are separate bills in the General Assembly designed to address the commerce aspect of property rights, so that landowners can sell whatever they grow on their farm. Other property rights bills include HB260 and HB738 and HB1178. Fitzgibbons said local county officials use the zoning laws to violate citizens’ rights.

“So these zoning laws, which have good intent in many ways, have come to be abused, like so many things that happen in government,” he said in an interview.

The first zoning laws started around the 1920s, Fitzgibbons said, as a way for the community to regulate what happens. As the Supreme Court approved the zoning laws, they increased their power over the years, he said.

Property rights became a major issue in the Virginia General Assembly last year after Martha Boneta, a woman who owns a small farm in Fauquier County, was fined $5,000 in August 2012 for hosting a child’s birthday party without a permit. She was also charged with more fines for selling her own handicrafts and “advertising a pumpkin carving.” The case reached the national spotlight.

Last year Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, sponsored HB1430, which he nicknamed the “Boneta bill,” to amend Virginia’s 1981 Right to Farm Act and expand the definition of agricultural operations. The Senate Agricultural, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee ended up killing the bill by passing it indefinitely.

This legislative session, several similar bills were introduced to help keep the Martha Boneta story alive. Del. Marshall’s bill is a direct response to the incidents involving Boneta.

“Local officials who abuse zoning authority powers to cower citizens into submission and deprive land owners of Constitutional rights in the enjoyment of their land must be subject to fines and actual damages they cause, including attorney fees,” Del. Marshall said in a press release. “I am convinced this harassment will continue until local officials realize they can be held liable in the form of fines and other costs.”

Boneta has also voiced her support for Del. Marshall’s bill.

I am confident that I would not have been bullied by my county government had this bill been in place earlier, and I ask all Virginians to contact their delegates and senators to support HB1219, which protects all of us, she said.

Many local governments opposed the Boneta bill because they said it supplants local control, according to Fitzgibbons. The Virginia Free Citizen reached out to Del. Mark Sickles, D-Alexandria, who voted against the Boneta bill last year, to get a comment on HB1219, but he did not respond. HB1219 is currently awaiting a vote in the Courts of Justice Committee.

Shelby Mertens, Virginia Free Citizen Shelby is an investigative journalist and 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.