In July, the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors passed new restrictions on farm wineries, limiting business that takes place after 6 p.m. and requiring permits for events. It allows just one after-hours event per month, with up to a total of 48 per year possible depending on the size of the farm winery and the acquisition of special permits from the county. It caps the number of people who can attend the events and limits the amount and types of food that can be served onsite, among other things. Opponents of the ordinance also say the property set-back rules seriously inhibit farm wineries smaller than 20 acres. The Board adopted these rules, it said, “to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public,” noting the alcohol consumed and the rural roads on which most wineries are located. It also noted that property owners near farm wineries have “reasonable expectations” to enjoy their property without undue noise, light, and traffic.
The ordinance has already been challenged by lawsuits from at least 12 Fauquier wineries as unlawful infringement on the burgeoning local wine business, and could well be addressed by the General Assembly, which restricted local governments’ authority over winery operations in 2006.
The debate has driven deep wedges in the community. Here two respected winemakers, Jim Law of Linden Vineyards and Philip Carter Strother of Philip Carter Winery, explain their respective sides.
The proposition that a winery must dedicate itself either to producing quality wine or to having events is a false choice. The two are not mutually exclusive. Fauquier’s wineries are producing some of the highest quality wines in the world, and most, but not all, must host events to attract customers in the first decades of operation.The wine business requires patience.
There are 26 wineries located in Fauquier County, with approximately 750 acres dedicated to agricultural practices. An acre of land costs on average $15,000, with an additional $15,000 to $20,000 per acre for vineyard development. It takes three to five years to produce quality fruit that can be used in wine production, and five to 10 years to produce premium wines. On average, it takes seven to 10 years for a winery to become cash positive, and up to 15 years or longer to recover the initial investment. The vast majority of Virginia’s new winery owners must rely on events to attract customers to their wineries to taste their wines until they can build a loyal customer base. That can take 10 to 20 years.
In the past decade, not one of the 26 Fauquier wineries received an adjudicated violation or citation that they caused an adverse impact to the health, safety, or welfare of the surrounding community. Despite this, Fauquier County adopted an ordinance that threatens the economic vitality of many of the wineries and cripples others.
Fauquier is inappropriately using county zoning to stage-manage local neighbor disputes that don’t exist. It is also attempting to regulate the sale of alcohol, which is within the regulatory control of the Virginia Alcohol Control Board.
The Fauquier County Farm Winery Ordinance, adopted this summer, represents a shortsighted, insidious form of regulatory expansion that infuses sweeping governmental control over every aspect of these farming operations—including the locations of wineries away from prime viticultural areas. It eliminates the by-right ability to operate a farm winery on agricultural lands, dictating the placement of farm buildings; access to private property, parking lots, and driveways; hours of operation; staff training; outdoor music; and number of guests, among other things. The ordinance regulates much more than large-scale events.
Sadly, we’ve been here before. In 2005, many farm wineries in Fauquier County were subjected to stifling levels of regulation. The Virginia General Assembly responded in 2006 with a comprehensive restriction on a local government’s regulatory authority over farm wineries. The law expressly prohibits a locality from regulating farm winery operations, with the exception of unreasonably amplified outdoor music and large-scale festival events that substantially impact the surrounding community. The law was adopted specifically because of Fauquier County’s interference, and to protect the thriving young farm winery industry.
Since 2006, the Virginia wine industry has grown from approximately 125 licensed farm wineries to more than 230 today. Virginia’s burgeoning wine industry contributes $747 million annually to Virginia’s economy, an increase of 106 percent over the figures from 2005. The taxes paid to the state and local governments grew from $21 million to $43 million, a 105 percent increase. The number of wine-related tourists visiting Virginia increased from 1 million in 2005 to 1.62 million in 2010, a 62 percent increase.
Unfortunately, none of the current members of the Fauquier Board of Supervisors were serving in 2005, and now history unlearned is about to repeat itself. The adoption of the Farm Winery Ordinance will lead to costly litigation and business uncertainty and will discourage investment in the county to the detriment of the citizens of Fauquier.
I have been a citizen and winegrower in Fauquier County for over 30 years. During that time, I have witnessed neighboring counties caving in to the pressures of developers and special interest groups. Fauquier County has remained a stunningly beautiful place where nature and man have worked in harmony over the centuries.
We Fauquier wineries have used this to our advantage. We boast of the views and bucolic countryside to attract visitors. Good zoning has preserved our commonwealth. Zoning means making individual concessions for the greater good. It’s now our turn to take some responsibility. Most new winery owners aren’t from here. Newcomers aren’t necessarily familiar with the history, culture, and values of their newly adopted community. Fauquier County has set some guidelines that new wineries can use to make good and balanced business-planning decisions.
We have witnessed past abuses of the special status that Virginia gives its farm wineries. Neighbors close to farm wineries have expressed concerns. It is only natural that good government responds to its citizens. I have been impressed with the due diligence of the zoning office and the careful considerations of the Board of Supervisors.
They have produced a balanced ordinance that provides reviews and controls, should a farm winery push the envelope on what is reasonable.
With some paperwork, the new ordinance provides for more than 50 events per year. Surely this is enough for any farm winery. This ordinance is about appropriate zoning, land preservation, and respect for community. If wineries want to open late-night wine bars and entertainment venues, they should locate to towns, where public safety, access, and parking are already in place.
The Virginia Farm Winery Law allows vineyards the right to produce and sell their wines in agriculturally zoned land. To qualify, the farm winery has to grow the majority of the grapes used in their wine production. If wineries don’t want the burden of growing their own grapes, then they should consider commercially zoned areas where there are established infrastructure and services. There would be less pressure on our delicate, rural ecosystem. This has been a successful model on the West Coast and in Europe, where négociants purchase grapes and bulk wine for their own blends and bottlings.
The Virginia wine industry has grown and matured. The original intent of the Virginia Farm Winery Law has eroded to the point where localities need to get involved. Giving farm wineries “carte blanche” to do whatever we please is no longer an option.
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Photography by Staff Photographer Karly Pope