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County planners, supervisors give direction on farm winery rules
20160614-Farm Wineries
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Supervisor Rick Randolph.
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Aaron Richardson | Tuesday, June 14, 2016 at 9:26 p.m.

Albemarle County supervisors and planners said Tuesday that they support creating separate event rules for farm wineries, breweries and distilleries.

Additionally, planners and supervisors suggested a sliding scale of event thresholds for alcohol operations based on the business's acreage, location and proximity to neighbors.

Wedding industry representatives and winemakers, brewers and distillers warned county officials that regulating events at rural area wineries, distilleries and breweries could hurt both the wedding industry and the alcohol industry.

The supervisors directed staff in March to work on a zoning text amendment with stronger rules about the relationship between events on a farm winery, brewery or distillery and the facility’s agricultural use.

Staff recommended a minimum standard for agricultural use that would require a farm winery, distillery or brewery to use at least 51 percent of its own product when making beverages and have a minimum of one producing acre, on-site fermenting or distilling equipment and an on-site tasting and sales area with regular business hours.

Officials supported the 51 percent threshold, which is outlined in state licensing guidelines for farm wineries, but worried that the regulation would kneecap brewers, who would have difficulty growing the hops they need in this climate.

“Where I want to go, and a different way of looking at this, is to assign scores and grades. I think we need some nuance here in how we regulate this,” said Supervisor Rick Randolph. “Locking breweries into 51 percent of their own product — that may set a very high bar. I would think we would look at maybe one acre, and someone with more acreage we would score higher.”

The panel agreed that the one-acre minimum was too low.

“I would definitely support more than one acre of on-site production, and I would support looking at the breweries differently,” said Planning Commissioner Jenny More. “I would encourage more than one acre of on-site production to make sure there is not a subversion of the agricultural focus.”

Proposed regulation changes include a minimum road standard of two paved lanes for event eligibility, a special-use permit requirement for outdoor amplified music, an increase in setbacks for parking, portable toilets and outdoor activities and a cap of 24 total events per year.

“I would just like to remind everyone that the reason people love to come here is because of the wonderful rural nature of the community.”

Ron Whitehouse

Wedding industry representatives said that limiting the number of events in a year would be disastrous.

Wedding planner Adam Donovan-Groves said his work’s impact is not limited to wineries.

“We used local hotels, wineries — 50 guests went to Monticello — and we used local photographers and videographers,” he said about a recent wedding. “If we limit small companies to 24 events a year, it limits us and makes it so we cannot do everything for our brides and grooms.”

Rural area residents have complained about traffic and noise associated with weddings and other events held near their residences. Some expressed concerns before Tuesday’s meeting that Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations create a loophole in local ordinances governing events.

Ron Whitehouse, who owns an Albemarle County horse farm, said that not limiting events also could be detrimental to the economy.

“I would just like to remind everyone that the reason people love to come here is because of the wonderful rural nature of the community,” he said. “If we change that, we are going to hurt not only ourselves — who came here for a wonderful rural community — we are going to hurt the vendors; we are going to hurt the very thing we are trying to promote.”

Currently, it is the ABC’s purview to grant the “farm” distinction to wineries, breweries and distilleries. County residents are worried that constitutes a potential loophole.

A lawyer on retainer for county residents opposed to rural-area events said last month that the ABC will grant a permit for a farm winery regardless of whether any grapes are grown on site.

Virginia’s legal code in recent years has been amended to keep localities from banning events at the facilities. The rationale in the state code is that events are both valuable revenue sources and marketing opportunities for small alcohol producers.

The code forbids localities from banning events at farms’ alcohol operations but allows them to regulate the events as long as the regulations consider the economic impact on the business and whether the event constitutes a “usual and customary” activity for small alcohol producers.

State code forbids localities from regulating those uses unless they can prove a “substantial impact on the health, safety or welfare of the public.” The same section forbids noise regulations more restrictive than the general noise ordinance, except for live outdoor music.

The county grants exceptions to that standard when there is large-scale crop damage caused by weather, or when the winery or cidery is under 5 years old and has at least one producing acre.

Albemarle staff also recommended a ban on outdoor amplified music without a special-use permit, as well as increasing the setback for parking, toilets and outdoor activities to 75 feet from a property line and 125 feet from the nearest residence.

The recommended metric stemmed from a series of four roundtable discussions in May and June between county staff and owners of farm wineries, breweries and distilleries.

Discussion at those meetings focused on what metric the county would use to determine a site’s agricultural use — and thus its eligibility to host events — and if it met the 51 percent on-site production standard.

David King, owner of King Family Vineyard in Crozet and chairman of the Virginia Wine Board, told the panel that state regulations cover the questions it seeks to answer.

“In answer to all of your questions about what is an event, what is usual and customary, it has all been done, it is available as part of the state code,” he said. “I would encourage you not to re-plow plowed ground.”

 

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