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Divergent views on Fauquier winery ordinance

Virginia winery Linden Vineyards

Winemaker Jim Law’s vineyards on a misty morning this summer. Photo by MA Dancisin.

In July, the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors passed a controversial ordinance regulating the hours of operation and the type and number of events that can be held at the county’s 26 wineries. The public hearing saw 53 people rise and speak in support or opposition to the proposed law. It takes effect January 1, 2013, assuming there are no challenges. But that might be a bad assumption.

It seems many of the proponents and adversaries of the law aren’t happy with the legislation. The chances it will be reconsidered by the county either voluntarily or by law suit appear to be good.

Three players with strong interest in the ordinance shared their views on the issue.

Linden Vineyards

Virginia wine maker Jim Law

Jim Law, one of Virginia’s most respected vintners, believes in a rural, agricultural model for wineries and is concerned about over-development. Photo by MA Dancisin.

Jim Law is winemaker and owner of Linden Vineyards and one of the most respected vintners on the East Coast. His support for the ordinance runs counter to the other county wineries. Moreover, his vocal endorsement of the legislation at the final hearing strongly disappointed his fellow winery owners who felt his record was clear and speaking publicly was unnecessary and harmful to the industry.

His take on the reaction is philosophical. “I’ve not really heard much since the hearing…I’m just mostly out in the vineyard and don’t follow the issue. This is the fourth time I’ve spoken at the hearings so my position was nothing new to those who know where I stand.

“Many of my neighbors and concerned citizens tell me Linden is an ideal winery. When I hear the ordinance is going to put wineries out of business, I think it’s ridiculous. Some people say I held such events in my early years and don’t appreciate where the newer wineries are coming from. It’s true. I did hold a few events in the early nineties but soon stopped it.

“One time I had a jazz band performing in my wine cellar when they started playing Jimi Hendrix. I knew then that events would change the nature of my winery and I mostly stopped them. I did some after that but they were related to wine education. I even wrote an article on my position several years ago.

“I think the ordinance is good zoning and the Board is being unfairly bashed. The beauty of this countryside is attributed to good zoning. We don’t have houses scattered everywhere and businesses located helter-skelter. The law takes a very thoughtful approach and the supervisors really took their time in passing it. They probably dragged it out more than they should have,” Law states.

Landowner

John Richardson practices law in DC and owns a 100-plus acre cattle farm in Happy Valley near Delaplane. He has followed the winery issue for several years. He underscores that he speaks as an individual but many of his views mirror those of the 400 or so citizens who supported the ordinance.

“I’m a wine drinker, as are many of my neighbors, and we support the industry. Some wineries are attractive and others are event centers. The essential business seems to be toward event centers rather than a vineyard or winery.

“Oasis was probably the catalyst for our efforts. Most people did not want that type of winery replicated. The county has an historic and environmentally protected heritage. Many people sympathized with our view, including the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Citizens for Fauquier County.

“Our concerns are noise, night lights, air pollution, water pollution and possibly unsafe buildings that do not have to pass inspection as part of a farm winery law. One lady at the hearing described how she won’t let her children play in her front yard because it’s perfectly obvious drivers are impaired as they pass her home after visiting wineries.

“But when the draft ordinance first hit the street last year, we knew it wasn’t harmless. If you give to one group, you take from another. Many of us don’t like the ordinance but its better than none at all. I think it needs to be revisited because it’s not a law than floats all boats.

“I would like see more flexibility in the ordinance. I would take a completely different approach. All the wineries are different; all neighborhood situations are different. I much prefer an ordinance that recognizes those differences and encourages cooperation rather than conflict.

“My preferred approach is to give the wineries the authority the state gave them but anything else would need a special dispensation from the county. I would have the wineries go their neighbors and see if they could reach accommodation then go to the county and say we all agree with this. The county would then say, OK you’re blest, go forward and do it that way.

“Nobody likes the ordinance. I think it’s a bad ordinance. It’s incumbent for everyone to come up with an alternative,” says Richardson.

Barrel Oak Winery

Virginia winery Barrel Oak Winery

Brian and Sharon Roeder, proprietors of Barrel Oak, own a sprawling 250+ acre estate, and emphasize that no neighbors have issues with their operation.

Brian and Sharon Roeder are owners of Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, or BOW, emblematic of the dog friendly atmosphere in the tasting room. BOW has met with considerable success since opening four years ago. It also may experience the harshest impact under the new law.

“If this new ordinance was in effect when we first opened and we received no administrative permits or special exceptions, it would have reduced our income by $1.8 million during that period,” says Brian Roeder.

“Business hours are a core issue for Barrel Oak. We are open till 9 PM on Fridays during the winter months and 9 PM on Fridays and Saturdays in the spring, summer and fall. Next year, based on the new hourly restrictions our revenue predictions—after allowing for full special exceptions and administrative allowances—will cost the winery $411,000 in revenue. And that doesn’t include lost revenue from our food carts and arts and crafts.

“We have operated from day one without one complaint from anyone. I’ve reviewed the Sheriff’s police report for the last two years. We searched the data base for the word ‘winery.’ Of all of the wineries in the county, there has been only one instance of where the word winery and DUI show up together. One.

“We are not talking about neighbors approaching wineries with complaints. We’re talking about ‘concerned citizens’ who are not necessarily neighbors of the wineries.

“I think it was a mistake on the part of the wineries as much as the Board of Supervisors. The Board became convinced the wineries were going to sue so they decided to throw everything and the kitchen sink into the ordinance and let the courts sort it all out. That assumes the small family winery community can afford to foot the bill. This is highly destructive.

“It places the burden on the wineries to prove the ordinance is illegal and we don’t have the money. It’s functionally designed to force wineries out of business. The county has defined every single marketing activity of our businesses as an event. If you do anything other than tastings at your bar, it’s an event according to the ordinance.

“BOW will be forced to sue the county to protect our legal rights. I will file a suit because I am required by law to challenge it within thirty days of passage. But it will not be ‘served”, which means we will continue to work with the county. I believe another suit will be filed by the Wine Council, but can’t say for certain. I also believe the Governor’s office will get involved based on the state’s interest in the matter.

“I seek a re-visitation of the ordinance that takes into account the enormous financial impact upon wineries. The law requires that the economic impact be taken into consideration. That’s never been done. They also need to show the impact on health, safety and welfare and that’s never been done.

“Our winery encompasses 270 acres and we have the support of our neighbors. I am certain there will be modifications or elimination of this ordinance as it is written. It is so illegal it will not be able to stand.

“Finally, I don’t fault the Supervisors directly on this group effort. I don’t blame them. They are all good people trying to do the right thing. We need to differentiate   between the actual impact and the implied impact of the new law,” says Roeder.

Passions run strong on all sides of the issue and it appears certain the ordinance will be given further scrutiny in the months ahead. Let’s hope the adage, “The best wine makes the best vinegar,” doesn’t hold true for Fauquier County wineries.

JOHN HAGARTY’s love of all things wine led to a second career in the wine business after retiring as an executive with the federal government. Currently, he is Manager, Special Events, at Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly, VA. He also writes extensively on wine related issues for local and state publications and is a home winemaker. John has an open door policy so visit him at Hagarty-on-Wine.com.

 

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