By. Neil Williamson, President
Albemarle County has a large number of wineries and vineyards as a part of its agricultural economy. The Monticello Wine Trail, which includes all of Albemarle, produces roughly 1/2 of all the wine produced in the Commonwealth.
According to the Washington Post:
Virginia ranks fifth in the nation in the number of wineries — with more than 255 — and is the nation’s fifth-largest wine grape producer, officials said. According to a 2011 economic impact study, the wine industry contributes almost $750 million to the state’s economy on an annual basis.
More than 1.6 million tourists visited Virginia wineries in 2013.
Albemarle County’s official website includes a page to “Discover your Albemarle Crush”
If the proposed regulations are adopted, a landowner may have a pig pen directly on the property line but a tasting room, parking lot or even a tent for a winery event must be set back 125’.
Rather than valuing the viticultural operations and allowing these rural farms to operate most efficiently (including events), Albemarle is seeking to dictate many of the business decisions including, tent setbacks, hours of operation and even how they bottle their product.
But this is FAR beyond the Supervisors original intent.
Please let me explain.
Last March, the Board of Supervisors determined that they wanted to create a more direct linkage between Albemarle County agricultural use and the ability to hold events at farm wineries, farm breweries, and farm distilleries (FWBDs).
The 1979 Virginia state law, which was designed to promote viticulture in the state, allows farm wineries to utilize leased vineyards anywhere in the state. Albemarle, seeing to promote viticulture in Albemarle and prevent “faux” farm wineries from becoming by right event spaces in the rural areas, asked staff to address this concern in new event regulations.
WHEREAS, conducting such activities and events on lands designated Rural Area in the Comprehensive Plan and on lands zoned Rural Areas where there is little or no connection to agriculture is contrary to the policies in the Rural Area section of the Comprehensive Plan and the purposes of the Rural Areas zoning district; and
WHEREAS, in order to address these concerns, it is desired to conduct a new study of the relationship between activities and events at FWBDs, their agricultural nature, whether the activities and events are usual and customary as agricultural activities and events, whether and under what circumstances the activities and events are creating adverse impacts on other properties, and the economic impact of any such regulations that may be considered to address these concerns; and
WHEREAS, if the study so warrants, it is desired to consider amending the zoning regulations by strengthening the requisite relationship between agriculture and the activities and events at FWBDs, reasonably addressing any adverse impacts by performance standards or other means identified in the study in order to protect the public health, safety or general welfare, and to address any other issue identified in the study deemed to be necessary and appropriate. Emphasis Added – nw
Staff used the last line in the last Whereas to be a blank check to impact the very business operations of the FWBDs.
While the Free Enterprise Forum is understanding of mandating 5 acres of on site planted acreage to hold events, therby tying agriculture to the events, the balance of the proposed ordinance goes too far:
1. Increasing setbacks from 75’ front/25’ side/35’ rear to 125’ from property line.
This relatively arbitrary increase seems to be directed at mitigating impact on the neighbors. Proper enforcement of existing regulations would seem to be a better less property rights limiting manner to achieve the same result.
In addition, when queries via email regarding agricultural setbacks the Zoning Administrator:
There is no Albemarle County zoning setback for those things [livestock]. We also don’t have setbacks for fencing in general.
Clearly, if enacted as drafted the setbacks portion of this code would significantly favor slopping hogs over sipping hops near the property line.
2. Mandating and not defining “regular hours open to the public”
The concept behind this suggestion is good; any winery seeking to hold events should have enough wine to sell to the public regularly. Unfortunately, the concept does not hold up to close examination. Today there are nearly 300 Napa Valley (CA) wineries operating on a ‘By Appointment only’ including such industry stalwarts such as Opus One and Duckhorn Vineyards. There are a number of high end wineries with significant production in Virginia operating under a similar business model (RDV, Boxwood Estate, etc.). One local winery (Mountfair Winery) is now closed to the public selling the majority of their production via their wine club. From their website:
Mountfair Vineyards A private club winery! Mountfair Vineyards, nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge near Charlottesville, is a family owned and operated Club Winery serving our club members through appointment and special events. Mountfair is no longer open for regular tasting room hours.
Considering the reduced neighbor impact of an appointment only winery, why should Montfair (or other properties like them) be excluded from holding events?
This market reality raises the question why Albemarle would seek to require wineries that need not be open to make their business model work open their doors to hold events.
Further, a lack of definition of “regular hours” allows the zoning administrator (and her successors) significant latitude in their interpretation of the code.
3. Punishing the Sunday Bride – Curfew on amplified music.
Currently there is no curfew on amplified music beyond the noise ordinance. Staff heard loud and clear (pun intended) in the Joint Board of Supervisors/Planning Commission meeting that current practice is to stop all amplified music at 11 pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Rather than accepting a self imposed industry practice and adopting it as code staff selected 10 pm on Sunday night to be the cut off.
One winery, who has been commended for their noise cancelling practices, indicated 20% of their wedding business is Sunday weddings. If we assume the wedding season runs from May – October (6 months), allowing an 11 pm Sunday cutoff would amount to 24 additional hours of operation (if all dates were booked). Why not accept the market reality and be done with this – enforce the noise ordinance without punishing the Sunday bride.
Albemarle wineries and cideries (more than breweries and distilleries) have a long history of being good neighbors and benefiting the local economy with their events. Albemarle can tie the event ordinance to the land but should step away from the mission creep of dictating the business activities on the land.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.