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Managers of a historic property in Albemarle County came before the Planning Commission on Tuesday with a request to expand the holding of special events at a farm with a new hard cider operation.
Twenty residents spoke at the public hearing, the majority raising concerns about event traffic and noise being introduced in the rural countryside. The Planning Commission shared the neighbors’ concerns about the frequency of larger events, and took a “try before they buy” approach on an annual cider festival.
Castle Hill Cider is located on 600 acres of the Castle Hill property in the Southwest Mountains area north of Cismont, off Route 231 and Turkey Sag Road.
“The applicants are proposing up to 15 events per year of 201 to 500 attendees and one annual cider festival that would be for 501 to 3,000 attendees,” said Albemarle senior planner Scott Clark.
Albemarle staff recommended approval of the special-use permit necessary for holding the large events. As a “farm winery” Castle Hill Cider can already hold an unlimited number of by-right events for up to 200 attendees.
The Planning Commission voted 5-1 to grant a two-year trial period for one annual cider festival for up to 3,000 people. However, the 15 larger events will not be recommended for approval when the matter goes before the Albemarle Board of Supervisors later this year.
Architect John Rhett, director of strategic planning for Castle Hill Cider, argued that the cidery presented a unique opportunity for their business and the community.
“There is a recognition of the beauty of the land,” said Rhett. “The orchard sits lightly on the land, the blossoms are endearing and it’s a three-dimensional beauty that one can stroll through.”
“This agricultural beauty, within a natural setting, is a powerful attraction to Castle Hill Cider,” Rhett added. “Many young people develop fond memories of the Albemarle County countryside while enjoying the festive flavor of Castle Hill Cider.”
Neighbor John Henry Jordan told the commission he was concerned about noise coming from even the existing events being held at Castle Hill.
“I agree with Mr. Rhett on one thing, Keswick is a special place, but at 10 p.m. on my front porch it’s not as special as it used to be,” Jordan said. “The noise causes my animals to run in the fields, my dog to bark, and my wife and I to lose sleep.”
Another neighbor, Susan Forschler, said she lives within a mile of the property.
“Every Saturday, we hear the live music, the boom of the bass, in our backyard,” Forschler said. “We can even make out lyrics of songs that are played. It has completely changed our weekends and we have to rethink parties in our own backyard.”
Representatives from Castle Hill Cider said they would comply with Albemarle’s noise ordinance for their events and take measures to mitigate traffic impacts.
Tim Edmond, an owner of Potter’s Craft Cider, said that while he was technically a competitor, he thought Castle Hill’s request should be approved.
“I don’t think this is going to materially impact traffic or noise patterns,” Edmond said. “On behalf of our industry, they have supported the cider making community doing apple tastings and educational events.”
In January 2006, almost 1,203 acres at Castle Hill were placed under a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy with a goal of launching an old growth forest restoration program. Another 345 acres were donated to the conservancy.
The original Castle Hill residence dates to 1764 and the home is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
Rex Linville is the local land conservation officer of the Piedmont Environmental Council, which opposes the expansion of non-agricultural commercial events at farm wineries.
“When the scale of the entertainment operation gets to the point that it’s no longer a supporting use of the agricultural operation, but really the dominant use in and of itself, then we are opposed to it,” Linville said in an interview.
“If you are not going to deny this permit here, then you really don’t have much of a basis to deny it anywhere,” said Linville. “There are 15 other wineries in Albemarle that could reasonably ask for the same amount of expansion of use of their property.”
In their deliberations, the Planning Commission immediately raised concerns about the 15 events for 201 to 500 people that would be held in and around a renovated 11,000-square-foot barn.
“No other application before us has come with this degree of neighbor concerns,” Planning Commissioner Richard Randolph said. “I have heard a great deal of concern about traffic and noise that would constitute a nuisance … The people that are the neighbors in the community … their interests and needs are paramount and therefore they trump the commercial interests.”
Planning Commissioner Bruce Dotson said he was worried about the precedent that might be set by approving the permit.
“For me, it is a question of scale and frequency,” Dotson said. “In the 200 to 500 range, I am concerned that, if we did it here, we would get a rush of requests also requesting 500.”
Dotson suggested the idea that the single large cider festival could still be held. All the other commissioners but Randolph agreed with that approach. Commissioner Tom Loach was absent.
“We have established 200 as the norm for events,” said Planning Commissioner Calvin Morris. “An [annual] 3,000-person event doesn’t bother me, but I would like to cap it at being for one to two years, then revisit it.”
Rhett said he was pleased with the festival’s approval and that negotiations would continue before the Albemarle supervisors.
“We are happy we got something approved,” Rhett commented after the vote. “One of our goals is to further support the cider industry in Virginia.”