Fauquier County passes rules after contentious debate over wineries


Randi Smith of Bethesda, Md. and Lisa Carey, of Alexandria, Va., right, enjoy a quiet moment as they share a glass of wine on the winery grounds at Stillhouse Vineyards. (Richard A. Lipski/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

It took years of heated debate, a bunch of public hearings, a lawsuit filed then yanked and a flurry of last-minute compromises. But they finally did it: Fauquier County passed a set of restrictions on its growing number of wineries.

Now wineries will have to abide by rules limiting things such as the events they host, the hours they are open, the food they serve and the buildings they erect. Some neighbors don’t think the rules go nearly far enough. Many owners are angry at the restrictions, which they say will crush their businesses, and say they will find a way to challenge the ordinance.

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.


Cabernet Franc grapes hang for their vines at the Philip Carter Winery at Stillhouse Vineyards in Virginia. (Richard A. Lipski/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

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.

So for years, there were talks about a farm-winery ordinance.

“The debate over the proposed ordinance has been going on since 2008,” Strother said. “There have been no fewer than six public hearings on the proposed ordinance.” The whole time, winery owners were dreading new rules that would suffocate their growth, he said.

Neighbors and others concerned about the wineries have been frustrated, too.

“Fauquier County has been operating with no enforceable ordinance,” said Julie Broaddus of Citizens for Fauquier County. “That is unsustainable. . . . It’s not fair to the wineries, and it’s not fair to the community because there are no protections for the health, safety and welfare of the public.”

Some who called for clear restrictions say they’re not concerned about all wineries, but about those that rely on events such as weddings as part of their business model. At some point, a farm winery becomes a commercial, rather than an agricultural, enterprise, they say, and the zoning is designed to protect farming and countryside, not event centers.

Some winery owners say there’s a broader concern about retail operations on farms, pointing to an issue with an organic farm that sells honey and other things on site in Fauquier. Brian Roeder, who owns a large winery, said it pits “large landowners’ desire for a bucolic countryside at odds with the needs of farmers to have a viable income.”

The ordinance went through a series of changes in recent days. A final draft circulated Thursday afternoon, shortly before the public hearing and the 4-1 vote by the board of supervisors. While some residents were very pleased with the results, and many were relieved that there would be rules after such a long debate, others were still sorting through the details of what, exactly, this would mean for the county.

Some neighbors were worried that the rules wouldn’t be tightly enforced. And Roeder said, “I think it’s unfortunate that a local government has used zoning to take so much power over business operations. . . . The question will be how they apply that power.”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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