Farm fights Fairfax County for high ropes course

Fairfax County has just opened a new ropes course at one of its parks, but a local farmer is crying foul. He runs an agri-tourism farm in Clifton and wanted to open his own ropes course, but the county said no.

FAIRFAX CO., VA (WUSA9) - Fairfax County has just opened a new high ropes course at one of its parks, but a local farmer is crying foul.

Jeff Waters run Whitehalls Farms in the Clifton area. He wants to open his own ropes course under the state's agritourism law, but the county said no. And the farm's owner thinks the denial is not a coincidence.  

Waters used to build homes. Now he says he's trying to protect the farm "in perpetuity." The 200-acres are owned by Waters' wife whose father farmed it for decades.  

"By all rights, this should have been a subdivision a long time ago. My in-laws chose not to do that," says Waters. "I decided at age 60, it seemed like a good idea to work 100 hours a week for no money. Except I do get paid a dozen eggs a week."

He has a few employees to help raise the handful of grass-fed steers, lard pigs called mule-foot (looks like their wearing a high heel) and several dozen chickens (Rhode Island Reds crossed with White Leghorns). He also grows crops and sells the vegetables and meat in their on-site market and a growing Facebook following. 

But Waters is looking for more income so he can expand the farm, which is exempt from property taxes because it's an agritourism business. He believes a high ropes course would bring in more customers along with families interested in giving their children the up-close experience of a farm to see where food comes from.  

But the Fairfax County Zoning Administrator turned down his request to have his proposed ropes course approved as a agritourism activity. Fairfax County Department of Communications replied to WUSA9 with this statement:

Mr. Waters sought a determination that his proposed ropes course is an agritourism activity allowed by right on his farm. Agritourism activities are defined in the Virginia Code, and include activities that allow members of the general public to view or enjoy rural activities. Based on the facts Mr. Waters presented, the Zoning Administrator determined that the proposed ropes course is not an agritourism activity, but rather a commercial enterprise that would happen to be located in a wooded area. The Zoning Administrator determined that the ropes course could be allowed on the farm if Board of Zoning Appeals approves a special permit for the course. Mr. Waters does not want to apply for a special permit, and he has therefore appealed the Zoning Administrator’s determination. The Board of Zoning Appeals will hear the appeal  on June 28, 2017. 

Waters argues that  a high ropes course built in the forest where the trees have been harvested, is no different than Cox Farms having a maze in the corn field.

State law says "agritourism activity means any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposed, to view or enjoy rural activities, including farming, wineries, ranching, historical, cultural, harvest-your own activities, or natural activities and attractions." 

Waters said he believes the denial is related to the fact Fairfax County has just opened it's own ropes course at South Run Park.  

He says a special permit could wind up costing upwards of $100,000, even though the county's application fee for a special permits is $16,375, according to officials. 

© 2017 WUSA-TV


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