Albemarle County farm wineries and cideries have become a popular destination for weddings and other events, but some are concerned about the impact those events can have on neighbors.
“The folks that I’m hearing from in the county are complaining about the traffic, noise from amplified music and fireworks,” said Jeff Werner, of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
In recent years, the General Assembly has passed legislation that prevents localities from banning events at farm wineries because they can be used as additional revenue to ensure agricultural operations can stay afloat.
On a related note, the county currently allows farms in the rural area to apply for a special-use permit to hold events. That requires applicants go through the public hearing process.
However, the county allows such events by-right if they are held on a farm winery or cidery.
Currently, only the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control decides who gets to be a farm winery, and that could present a potential loophole.
“I don’t have to have a single grape to get a farm winery license,” said David Thomas, of the firm Michie Hamlet. “And then I can have an unlimited number of events.”
Thomas has been retained by neighbors of one potential farm winery on Ballards Mill Road called the Gardens at Waterperry Farm.
“All of their advertising is for weddings and events and their website has no mention of a winery,” said Elizabeth Neff. “We feel that it’s an end run on the special-use permit and there should be something on their website that talks about producing wine.”
Waterperry Farm had been scheduled to have a preliminary hearing before the ABC in April but that was postponed and has not yet been rescheduled.
In the meantime, Albemarle planning staffers have been studying ways to close the loophole. Those efforts included a series of roundtables with stakeholders.
The final one was held Tuesday and included representatives of farm wineries and cideries. Among other things, they were asked how they use events in their businesses.
“Anytime we try to advertise any activity on our farms, we’re trying to sell our product, which is how it ties to agriculture,” said Stuart King of King Family Vineyards.
“You are required if you have an event in our tasting room to serve cider,” said Charlotte Shelton, of Albemarle Ciderworks.
Jeff Sanders, of Glass House Winery, has a similar policy for their limited number of events.
“The purpose of us doing our events is to expose new people to our property and Virginia wine,” Sanders said.
Shelton said she was skeptical about whether the county really has a problem.
“What I hear is that there are rogue happenings around and to do a blanket legislation is horribly counterproductive and carries all kinds of collateral fallout for people who are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Shelton said.
County planner Mandy Burbage said the intent of the new regulation is to ensure a connection between agricultural operations and events.
“What we want least to do is encumber the agricultural enterprises that are valid and in this room,” Burbage said. “We want to understand how you operate in good times and hard times so we aren’t inadvertently burdening you with the changes in our regulations.”
Attendees also were asked if they thought Albemarle should impose a minimum agricultural production requirement before the county could classify them as a farm winery or cidery.
Alexia Richards, of Roslyn Farms, said she thinks it would be unfair to smaller properties to set one minimum for all of Albemarle.
“You don’t want to disenfranchise a small farm because they’re small and can’t produce as much as a bigger farm,” Richards said.
Tim Edmond, of Potter’s Craft Cider, said it can take many years for an orchard to grow, and a new manufacturer of cider might need to buy apples in the meantime.
“Should they be ineligible to have the privileges of a farm winery until such a time as those trees are at maturity?” Edmond asked. “That’s a risky thing to do and it would hamstring some of those producers who are doing the right things.”
Some of the participants expressed skepticism that the county should regulate to stop potential bad actors, but Sanders said members of the Monticello Wine Trail have been considering the issue.
“We do perceive a potential problem from the county’s perspective,” Sanders said. “There’s enough of it happening across the state, and it is causing problems and pushback on the basic farm winery law. We don’t want things that aren’t [really] farm wineries existing and taking us down with them by way of backlash.”
Neff attended Tuesday’s event, as well a roundtable Monday that focused on affected neighbors.
“I think the established players are trying to make a good product, trying to make a good wine, trying to make a good cider, and they care about the industry and we’re all for that,” Neff said. “What we feel as a neighborhood is that if you’re agriculture and you’re trying to be agriculture, that you should need to produce something.”
The Planning Commission will hold a work session on the topic June 14.
Carrington King of King Family Vineyards is a member of the board of directors of Charlottesville Tomorrow.