Regulations Sour Dream of Winery
Thursday, December 4, 2008
The setting couldn't be more splendid for a Virginia Piedmont farm winery: 35 acres of rolling hills, wood-rail fencing, an 18th-century log cabin and ancient stands of black walnuts, holly and American boxwood.
But Jane and Kirk Wiles, a mother-and-son entrepreneurial team trying to establish Fairfax County's first winery, near the southwestern enclave of Clifton, have discovered that there's no place for their plans in the county's suburban zoning regulations.
Collectively, the Wileses and relatives, including such historic local names as Kincheloe and Arrington, have owned about 300 acres in the Clifton area since forebear Wansford Arrington took possession of the property from Lord Fairfax in the early 1700s. Jane Kincheloe Wiles inherited the 35-acre piece two years ago, when an elderly aunt died, and she came up with the idea of a winery to preserve the property's rural character.
Wiles handed off the details to her son, a 26-year-old former University of Miami business student, who developed a business plan, hired a consultant and began learning about wine. The Wileses envisioned a tasting room in a refurbished barn and a dining room in the cabin's exposed-beam basement for more intimate tasting menus. They would build a wine-making facility behind the barn, where as many as 50 tons of grapes would be processed each year.
They designed a label, black with gold lettering and a likeness of a gnarled, mature grapevine. They chose the name Paradise Springs of Clifton, for a natural spring nearby that had served as the source of a bottled-water operation in the early 20th century.
But this fall, the Wileses received bad news from the office of the Fairfax zoning administrator: There is no provision in county regulations for a farm winery. Such a use is not allowed in the property's zoning category, "residential-conservation," the office said, although the category allows agricultural uses. Because of the Wileses' intent to manufacture wine and buy grapes, in addition to growing their own, the operation could legally operate only on land zoned for industrial use, said Deputy Zoning Administrator Lorrie Kirst.
The conclusion was absurd, the Wileses argued. Farm wineries are licensed by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. They are, by definition, agricultural entities where grapes are grown and processed. A farm winery could not operate on industrially zoned land, the Wileses said.
Kirst said that Virginia law states that local land-use regulations may come into play in the location of wineries. The Wileses said that if the winery were not permitted in their zoning district, then Fairfax officials were effectively barring wineries from the county.
"They're trying to blockade this winery," said Chris Pearmund, a grape grower with operations in Fauquier and Prince William counties who is the Wileses' consultant. "Fairfax is not agricultural. It does not want to be agricultural. If this winery were to open, the county is afraid that more small-parcel wineries would open, and you've got a Pandora's box."
Pearmund said he understands the county's concern; the residents of the large homes on five-acre lots that dominate Clifton's landscape might not appreciate the traffic and noise if small wineries began cropping up across the area. Fairfax is primarily suburban, and the county's land-use regulations are written to protect that character, Pearmund said.
But Pearmund said he has a solution: Change the county ordinance to allow wineries on properties of a certain size, say 25 acres or more. That way, Paradise Springs, which has been welcomed by the town mayor and neighbors, could proceed, he said.
"As long as a certain percentage of your grapes are coming from your property, it's absolutely appropriate," said Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), whose district includes Clifton and who supports the Wileses' endeavor. "It's a large lot. It's a way to preserve the lot, and it will help the town."
The Wileses have appealed Kirst's opinion to the Board of Zoning Appeals. It will go before the board in February. The board's decision, the Wileses said, will probably be appealed to the Circuit Court, either by the Wileses or the county.
In the meantime, the Wileses continue to make plans on their property, which sits at the end of winding, pastoral Yates Ford Road, west of Clifton, across from Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. In April, they planted 1,200 cabernet franc vines on a sloping field opposite the cabin; they expect to plant another field below the cabin and on nearby property and to buy grapes from other Virginia growers.
One day, they hope, visitors will park along the gravel drive. Outdoor seating will welcome them along the cabin, which will serve as a visitors center and business office (and basement dining room). In the barn, huge doors will open in warm weather and let in a breeze for those tasting the winery's fare. And south of the barn, more than two-thirds of the property, about 25 acres, will remain wooded.
That's unlikely if the plans fall through, Jane Wiles said. Instead, she will consider selling to a developer, who might subdivide the property into as many as seven residential parcels.
"It's almost inevitable that any property is going to go that route," she said. "How can people hold onto it otherwise?"