Albemarle planners and wineries differ on size of crowds, operating hours

Albemarle planners and wineries differ on size of crowds, operating hours

Winemaker Matthieu Finot siphons wine from oak barrels to give a reporter a preview of the 2009 vintages from King Family Vineyards. Outside the barrel room, scores of tourists and wine enthusiasts buzz through the tasting room—swirling, talking, snacking and purchasing wine. It’s Saturday afternoon, and it’s business as usual at a popular Crozet winery in Virginia’s largest grape-growing county.

Isn’t it?

Thirteen Albemarle businesses, including King Family Vineyards, where the tasting room was busy on a recent weekend, would be affected by zoning changes that could limit the number of people who attend farm winery events.

Recent discussions between the Albemarle County Planning Department and county wineries raise questions about exactly what comprises normal activity at a winery—and even, to a degree, what constitutes a farm winery, itself. Planners want to bring the county’s current zoning ordinance in line with the State Code that regulates farm wineries. It seems that, so far at least, the language and stipulations they’ve come up with are leaving a sour taste in the mouths of some local wine professionals.

It boils down to three areas of concern: hours of operation; limits on numbers of people that can attend winery events without a zoning variance; and, as mentioned, the definition of farm wineries as well as agritourism.

Let’s backtrack. In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly passed a measure stating that local restriction on farm wineries “shall be reasonable and shall take into account the economic impact on the farm winery of such restriction…and whether such activities and events are usual and customary for farm wineries throughout the Commonwealth.” Then in the March 2009 legislative session, the Assembly amended statute 15.2-2288.3, as it’s known, to further instruct localities to take into account “the agricultural nature of such activities and events” when imposing their own restrictions. Feeling, at that point, that there were “adjustments we should be looking into that would more directly reflect the State Code,” says Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s director of planning, Albemarle planners held a roundtable last summer with members of the local wine trade. In early November, they followed up with a work session. That’s when the three main points of contention surfaced.

As currently worded, the county’s amended ordinance defines a farm winery (“An establishment located on one or more contiguous parcels in Albemarle County licensed as a farm winery under Virginia Code…”) and what constitutes “agritourism” (“A commercial enterprise at a farm or farm winery conducted for the enjoyment or education of visitors that generates income for the owner of the farm or farm winery”). Beyond that, it would limit by-right activities, such as wedding receptions and business gatherings, to 200 people. In addition, the county wants to specify normal hours of operation as between 9am and 6pm.

Not so fast, says Matt Conrad, director of the Virginia Wine Council, a lobbying group. “The language in the state statute is fairly explicit,” he says. “Usual and customary events shall be permitted without local regulation unless there is substantial impact on the health and welfare of the public.

“Is there a substantial impact on the health, safety and welfare of the public from these activities? I’ve seen no such study that says so,” he continues. “And the county has not considered that restriction of these activities would have an impact on wineries’ economic viability.”

Kerry Hannon, who is the general manager at King Family, says that margins are a lot tighter at wineries than people might realize. Large events play a central part in getting the word out about the local agricultural product they produce, though she acknowledges that King Family to date has not exceeded a capacity of 200—albeit voluntarily. “But if someone came to me and said I have a 500-person event and I have to say no, it would kill me. The upside of that event is enormous.”

In other words, wineries have to drive customers to their locale to keep business churning. The Free Enterprise Forum, a conservative pro-business group headed by Neil Williamson, has even chimed in. “My reason for being at the work session,” he says, “was in support of agricultural enterprises that help keep Albemarle County lands rural. The idea of keeping those lands financially viable by way of a farm winery is something that the Free Enterprise Forum supports. We are proponents of the wine industry and we consider wineries to be good neighbors.”

Cilimberg says the intention in limiting the number of events that can exceed 200 attendees is to “address traffic generation and the facility’s ability to handle the numbers.” Further, on the subject of keeping rural lands rural, Cilimberg says this is one reason that restaurants are unequivocally banned. “We don’t have restaurants in our rural area. We can see restaurants becoming their own commercial activity in themselves,” he says, which would take them to another realm than, say, tasting rooms that offer cheese plates—an activity associated with a winery but secondary to its operation. (Hard to imagine someone driving out to a winery just to get a cheese plate, though she might drive out to a winery only to dine at its restaurant.)

But where defining commercial activity falls within the scope of the planning department, Conrad and others question the right of the county to stipulate what hours they can keep. As Chad Zakaib, the general manager at Jefferson Vineyards, points out, “our hours of operation are regulated by Virginia ABC as part of our licensing process.”

The discussion in November was courteous but direct. At this stage Cilimberg and other planners are hoping to revise the ordinance amendment and get it to the Planning Commission shortly after the New Year, taking into account the wineries’ objections. “In all cases when we work on an amendment, we rely on the policy of the county and on our knowledge of what businesses are trying to do,” he says. “I am not aware of all the particulars of the business model that wineries use. But over time the wineries have been very communicative about how they operate.”

Still, some are left wondering why Albemarle won’t just leave well enough alone and let the State Code dictate the terms? After all, only three Virginia counties in total have decided to tinker with their ordinances following 2009’s action by the General Assembly. “When we talk about health, safety and welfare of the community, are we talking about the welfare of the community as a whole or the welfare of the neighbor across the street?” says Hannon. “Are the people of Albemarle County better off because wineries are here? Is the community enhanced by having wineries present? I would say yes.”

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