Northeast Ohio is not famous for its viticulture, but now a public watchdog group has turned its spotlight on a winery on the grounds of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
That's because the National Park Service has, since 1999, spent more than $475,000 to fund the winery, along with two organic vegetable and free-range chicken farms and other activities on park grounds, according to documents released Wednesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The winery has yet to produce wine, and internal documents from Sarah's Vineyard raise questions about the operation's financial viability. But park officials said the broad farming project, known as the Countryside Initiative, is a way to preserve the region's agricultural character, saying it could serve as a model for the country.
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose group obtained the park documents through a Freedom of Information Act request, questioned why taxpayers should fund a $55,000 line to bring municipal water to the vineyard, as well as $99,000 to rehabilitate its farmstead.
"This project is both an absurd and improper use of taxpayers' money," Ruch said. "It is not the business of the Park Service to help the great state of Ohio acquire a reputation for winemaking."
But Cuyahoga Valley National Park's superintendent, John Debo, said the initiative was an innovative way to recapture the region's agricultural history while attracting visitors to the 30-year-old park.
"It's our way of responding to the need to preserve the cultural landscape of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park," Debo said. "It clearly is part of our mandate to preserve agriculture heritage."
The park has leased out three farm properties on park grounds, including the vineyard, at market rates. Debo said he hopes to lease out up to 30 farm properties over the next decade. In the case of the winery, the park receives $466 a month rent for the residence and a percentage of the gross farm product, which will increase from 5 to 10 percent over the next 10 years.
Darwin Kelsey, executive director for the nonprofit organization that advises the park on the Countryside Initiative, said the three farms now generate about $25,000 in annual revenue but the figures should rise rapidly in future years.
"These dudes are just getting off the ground," Kelsey said, adding that his group, the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, has raised close to $500,000 from area private foundations to finance the initiative. "We're off and running."
The project has the backing of a senior appropriator, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), as well as the Interior Department. The Park Service also spent three years preparing an environmental impact statement on the leasing project and has concluded that farming will not hurt the parkland.
The winery has a residence as well as vineyards. Its 2.25 acres of grapes include varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin and Traminette. The couple running the winery, Mike and Margaret Lytz, plan to produce 625 cases of wine from their current property by 2008, according to park officials.
According to Sarah's Vineyard's 2003 annual operating plan, the winery operators have some doubt about its future. They wrote in one passage: "How do we justify more expenditures given this current situation of no return on investment? Are we expected to keep throwing time and money into our enterprise with the hope that some day our partners . . . will be able to devote the necessary resources to produce the required Environmental Assessment?"
Debo said the Park Service is hoping to wrap up the assessment, which differs from the impact statement, to determine how constructing the barn and a small parking lot for the winery will affect parkland. Park officials must approve the construction before it can take place.
"They have been frustrated, I will admit, with the slow pace of the Park Service," he said. "The good news is, we're getting close to wrapping it up."
Lytz, a schoolteacher who learned winemaking from his Italian grandfather, said he was optimistic that he and his wife would eventually produce 10,000 cases of wine a year. He said they had already invested $100,000 in the project and hoped to produce 200 cases next fall. An Ohioan, he noted that the state was the leading grape producer in the mid-1800s.
"It will be very viable if we can get it off the ground," Lytz said. "It's a place for people to come in and sit down and enjoy the scenery."
Debo, who has devoted 16 years to promoting the initiative, said PEER has made "a sordid misrepresentation of these small, sustainable farmsteads" because the group wants the park to return to "wilderness condition."
"We're not going to let that happen," he said.