A farm-winery ordinance might not sound like fuel for a long, drawn-out and, at times, nasty fight. But the volatile mix of money and property rights has made it especially contentious. The board of supervisors struggled to find a balance between wineries and their neighbors in a quiet rural area. At its core, the debate is about the very character of the county.
Virginia’s fast-growing wine industry contributes three-quarters of a billion dollars annually to the state’s economy, according to the governor’s office, which has promoted the industry on overseas trade missions.
That growth has been especially dramatic in Northern Virginia: A decade ago there were three wineries in Fauquier. Now there are 26.
Such change hasn’t come easily in Fauquier, where much of the county is a quiet place with narrow country roads winding past woods, fields, horses, large homes and an occasional old general store. Some neighbors became alarmed when wineries began hosting weddings and events that brought crowds, lines of cars and music, and said that wineries seemed to have free reign.
“Oh my lord, they’re complaining about gatherings late in the night; lights coming down the road, shining into the neighbors’ houses; people who had too darn much to drink driving over neighbors’ yards,” said longtime resident George Thompson. “It comes down to the health, safety and welfare of the neighbors.”
But the winery owners said the rules could drive them out of business. “It’s regulatory abuse,” said Philip Carter Strother, who said his entire life savings is invested in his farm winery in Hume.
The state agriculture secretary and various wine associations had weighed in to oppose drafts circulating last week.
Peter Schwartz, a county supervisor, said county officials have been trying to thread the needle between giving wineries space to market their businesses and addressing concerns. People moving to a rural area “have a long-standing expectation of tranquility. This applies to people who have million-dollar houses and people who have a $100,000 property. They’re here for a reason. We have to balance that expectation as well.”
There’s a larger context, too, he said, with long-term planning in the county focused on preserving countryside while pushing development into the towns.
In recent years, the Virginia General Assembly has moved to protect wineries from onerous local regulations in an effort to promote and protect the industry. That further complicated the discussions in Fauquier.