Albemarle Tightens Regulations on Vineyards, Farm Breweries

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David King of King Family Vineyards speaking before the Board of Supervisors. (Photo: Eric Wallace)

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that imposes new regulations on farm vineyards, breweries and distilleries at a joint work session with the Planning Commission Jan. 18. While existing businesses were effectively ‘grandfathered’ in, the new rules were the result of complaints accusing businesses of using the farm vineyard and brewery laws as a means of operating wedding and event venues in the rural areas.

“Essentially the ordinance is to prevent businesses from setting up in the rural area for the purpose of hosting events and not having an agricultural focus,” said Jennie More, planning commissioner for the White Hall District. “The county has been working on this for some time to make sure we don’t hurt our ag businesses, but stop those using the system to plant a few rows of grapes so they can have weddings on their property.”

The issue came as an unforeseen byproduct of legislation passed by the state General Assembly—the latest being farm brewery law SB 430 which passed in late 2014—that allows farmers to open a brewery, vineyard, or distillery on a farm property with a residence, so long as some form of agricultural products used in making wine, beer or spirits is grown on the property. As the laws focused on maximums such as the number of barrels brewed, or amount of wine made, they did not specify minimum quantities for production, nor did they regulate the amount of crops that had to be grown. The laws were intended to bolster agri-tourism in rural areas, and give farms a means to diversify economically. Meanwhile, as the businesses have become popular wedding and event locations, neighbors have begun to complain about noise and late-night traffic, as well as light pollution.

“From our back deck you can plainly make out the lyrics to songs and it’s sometimes so loud it rattles the windows,” said Sandra Hodge, a resident in the White Hall District. “We didn’t move out here to hear loud music every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening from April through October.”

Citing the complaints, in March 2016 the supervisors began a process that ultimately tasked county staff with conducting an analysis of how to create ordinances that would address the issues. “We do not want to hurt our businesses that are playing by the rules,” said Ann Mallek, supervisor for the White Hall District, in addressing the board. “But we do need to establish standards that will clearly define those rules and allow us to take action against bad actors should problems arise.”

County staff detailed the suggested regulations. These included requirements for growing at least 5 acres of crops used in beverage production on site, to be able to prove that beverages are being produced and bottled on site, and to have an on-site tasting room with advertised regular hours. Additionally, setbacks for parking and portable toilets were established—125 feet on the sides and rear of properties, with 75 feet at the front; as well as rules concerning the hours that establishments may have outdoor amplified music at events, with a Sunday through Thursday cutoff of 10 p.m., and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (decibel levels will continue to be regulated through the county’s sound ordinance).

A public hearing followed. Thirteen speakers took the podium, with most being representatives or owners from local farm breweries and wineries. Concerns ranged, but mainly had to do with honoring existing contracts, setbacks, proposed curfews and a general disdain for what were deemed as costly and time-consuming regulatory procedures.

“We care about our neighbors and employ noise baffles and directional speakers to mitigate the impact of sound on them,” said Al Schornberg, owner of Keswick Vineyards. “Currently, 20 to 25 percent of the events we do are on Sundays and most of them are weddings. In the summer, the sun doesn’t go down until around nine, so our weddings generally go to 11 p.m. Impose this curfew and our business is going to go to our competitors, who don’t have to comply with these restrictions.”

Similar concerns were echoed by Candace Hark, who is in the process of developing a farm vineyard in Earlysville with her husband. “We’ve owned the property for three years, we planted this past spring, and now all of a sudden these setbacks are changing. I think we should be mitigating the sound with the sound [regulations], not with the setbacks.”

While they supported the regulation, both Mallek and Scottsville supervisor Rick Randolph emphasized the importance of evaluating future applicants on a case-by-case basis, and suggested the county begin a process to revisit the rural sound ordinance. “Every site is different, and for the most part we have a really high performance bar that the majority of our wineries and breweries already adhere to,” said Mallek.

Randolph added, “We want to create a process where new owners can get information from staff and figure out solutions for how to easily comply and maybe deal with sound through natural barriers and so on.”

Considering the relevancy of the matter, the owner of King Family Vineyards, David King, who worked closely with the board in developing the ordinance, urged the county to consider weighing in on such issues at the state level. “As we speak, legislators are considering modifications to these laws similar to what we’re doing here tonight,” he said. Stating that the board had “already done the research,” King urged supervisors to “reach out and seek to play a major role in that process,” thereby protecting the county’s businesses.

Ultimately, the ordinance passed by a vote of 5 – 1. In dissent, Rio District supervisor Brad Sheffield quoted the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, saying: “This is a missile to kill a mouse.”

The county’s 32 farm wineries, three cideries, two breweries, and three limited distilleries now in existence will be exempted from the new regulations, except for setbacks for parking toilets and tents.

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