Is another fight over agricultural land use brewing in Keswick?

File photo. File photo.

The Albemarle County Planning Commission voted 5-1 last night to approve an annual cider festival and new regulations at Castle Hill Cider, a 600-acre property in Keswick—a place where businesses and residents have clashed over agricultural land use in the past. Like other “farm wineries,” Castle Hill can host an unlimited number of events throughout the year for up to 200 guests, and a recent loosening of farm winery regulations at the state level has made it harder for local governments to impose further restrictions.

Cider Hill’s managers requested a special use permit that would allow them to host 15 events per year with up to 500 guests, as well as the annual cider festival, which they said would draw as many as 3,000 people. Ultimately, the Planning  Commission gave the O.K. to the festival, but rejected improving the number and size of events Castle Hill could host, setting up what could be a future battle over land use.

Of the 20 residents who stood up to speak at Tuesday’s meeting, most were not in favor of the cidery expanding its events, and were concerned about noise levels in a previously quiet rural area.

“I live within a mile of the cidery, and my life has been very negatively impacted by the noise,” said Keswick resident Susan Forschler. “We moved to Keswick because it is such a beautiful, tranquil area. Now we have to rethink our weekends, rethink having parties of our own.”

Residents also expressed concern for safety on Turkey Sag Road, which leads to the cidery. Neighbors who live along the narrow dirt road said they have already seen an increase in traffic since the cidery began hosting events, and fear that increased volume will make the dirt road even more dangerous.

But not all residents were opposed to the changes. Billy Prophet, who has lived on Turkey Sag for “the best part of 80 years,” said he’s never seen an excessive crowd, and pointed out that guests won’t all arrive at the same time, and many groups will travel four or five to a car.

“It’s been dusty, rough, and narrow,” Prophet said. “But I think it’ll be that way the rest of our time.”

Ultimately, the Planning Commission decided allowing Castle Hill to host bigger events would set a bad precedent in Albemarle. But they don’t have the last word. The cidery’s request will go before the Board of Supervisors later this year, and the Planning Commission will revisit the issue again at the end of 2014 so neighbors can weigh in once more.

Cideries and wineries have become increasingly popular tourist attractions, especially in Virginia where the 200-plus wineries bring in $747 to the state’s economy. But there’s growing concern that the state’s efforts to let them operate outside of local land use regulations is impacting rural life—and giving some the ability to function purely as tourist attractions instead of true agricultural operations.

“We’ve long supported local agriculture,” said Piedmont Environmental Council’s Jeff Werner. “But there’s a growing tension relative to wineries.”

Dianna Norris is an attorney for PEC, which recently weighed in on the topic of local regulation of wineries and cideries, saying Virginia has to find a balance between supporting agricultural land use and allowing local governments to control that use.

Agricultural easements have helped PEC put vast Virginia acreage into conservation, said Norris. But every corner of the Commonwealth is different, and the state’s one-size-fits-all rules aren’t going to work everywhere.

“We’ve put a lot of time and effort into conservation easements,” Norris said. “But we have to make sure we then protect what we’ve worked to do.”

Fauquier County is a good example, she said. When officials there approved a regulatory ordinance that restricted wineries’ hours earlier this year, they were soon hit with not one but two lawsuits. Now the county’s Board of Supervisors appears to be considering amending their brand-new ordinance.

If other parts of the state want to avoid such contentious rows, Norris said, they have to sit down at the table together throughout the regulatory process. “It’s a balance,” she said.

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