Family Clears Zoning Hurdle Toward Opening Fairfax's First Farm Winery
Friday, September 4, 2009
A mother and son's work to establish Fairfax County's first farm winery cleared a significant hurdle Thursday when the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board gave preliminary approval on issuing a state license to Paradise Springs Winery.
Dismissing objections from neighbors and county zoning officials, the board's hearing officer ruled that the winery's reliance on trucking in grapes did not violate the statutory definition of a farm winery. The hearing officer also dismissed fears of several residents in nearby Noble Estates that winery traffic would raise the risk of accidents on winding roads and upset the peace and quiet of the largely rural neighborhood.
"We're so relieved," said winery co-owner Kirk Wiles, 27, a financial analyst with a federal contractor. "I'm going to do a little celebrating tonight." Wiles and his mother, Jane Kincheloe Wiles, have invested more than $200,000 in the venture.
The initial decision, based on a July 21 hearing before an administrative hearing officer in Alexandria, could set up a court fight with Fairfax, which has said that the winery violates its zoning laws. Opponents have 30 days to appeal. The Wileses applied in January for an ABC license despite being told by the county that their enterprise would violate local zoning laws.
Senior assistant county attorney R. Scott Wynn, who testified against the winery on behalf of the county along with other officials, did not immediately return a call late Thursday.
Fairfax zoning officials argued that the winery's need to truck in as much as 35 tons of grapes a year from across the state violated zoning laws and made its operation resemble a factory more than a vineyard. The county's zoning administrator, in a decision upheld by the Board of Zoning Appeals, said that the Zoning Ordinance's definition of "agricultural" would not permit making wine from grapes grown off-site.
But Wiles said that state law trumps the zoning code and allows farm wineries to use fruit grown off-site. The ABC hearing officer, Clara A. Williamson, agreed, saying state law says that farm wineries must use at least 51 percent of fruit grown on its property or other properties that the winery owns or leases in the commonwealth. The rest can be purchased from other Virginia vineyards.
Williamson also knocked down arguments that the winery would make nearby roads unsafe and alter the tranquil rhythms of the rural area, citing the record of similarly situated wineries in the state.
The dispute also has highlighted frictions between Virginia's local governments and the General Assembly over how best to oversee the state's expanding wine industry.
Although Virginia's vineyards turn out a tiny fraction of wine compared with California, the state has made strides in quantity and quality, thanks to supportive laws passed by the General Assembly.
Lawmakers in recent years have exempted farm wineries from local regulation of their operations.
Some local governments and neighbors of wineries have objected, however, to the carte blanche given special events hosted by wineries, such as wine-tasting festivals and weddings. They argue that these special events have nothing to do with agriculture. Winemakers say they are crucial to their financial survival.