Farm Wineries in the Piedmont: Finding the right balance

Over the past year, there has been an increasingly heated debate over whether and how local governments should regulate the entertainment activities of farm wineries in Virginia. This is a multifaceted issue with multiple interests involved, and what works for one county doesn’t necessarily work for another. As more farm wineries make their home in the Piedmont, localities will have to decide what future they envision for their rural areas and their communities—and how farm wineries fit into that picture.

The success story

wine pour
Photo by Katherine Vance

“Virginia’s wine industry has seen a lot of growth over the past four decades, and with this growth comes impacts to the region’s rural areas that must be considered.

As the story goes, almost 400 years ago the founders of Jamestown decided that Virginia would be a major wine producer. They went as far as creating a law that required every man over the age of 18 to plant a minimum of ten grape vines. This venture was met with failure, however—the new environment proved to be too much for the European vines, and they were taken by pests and diseases.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that modern vintners learned how to successfully cultivate European grapes in the Commonwealth, and the past 40 years have been nothing short of a success story for Virginia’s farm wineries. Virginia was home to six wineries in the 1970s. By 1995, there were 46. In 2005 that number had grown to 107. Today, Virginia is home to over 200 wineries and more than 3,000 acres of vineyards—making the Commonwealth the fifth largest wine-grape producing state in the U.S.

The growth and success of Virginia’s wine industry has not only benefitted the owners of wineries and vineyards, but the economy of the Commonwealth. Earlier this year, Governor Bob McDonnell highlighted an economic impact study that claims the industry contributes $747 million to Virginia’s economy annually. According to the study, Virginia wineries sold 5.5 million bottles last year, and the number of full-time jobs in the wine industry grew to almost 5,000.

What makes Virginia’s wineries and vineyards particularly attractive is that they contribute to two of the Commonwealth’s largest industries: agriculture and tourism. Coupled with the history, natural beauty, and thriving local food scene of this region—wineries have found a niche in the tourism industry, with over 1.6 million people visiting Virginia wineries annually. The settlers of Jamestown would be amazed, to say the least.

Growing pains

What makes Virginia’s wineries and vineyards particularly attractive is that they contribute to two of the Commonwealth’s largest industries: agriculture and tourism. Photo by Tom Lussier

The recent expansion of vineyards and wineries is laudable. Yet, as with any growth spurt, it has come with some growing pains. Most vineyards and farm wineries are found in the rural area and, like every rural land use, they come with direct impacts to the land and to the surrounding community. For farm wineries, these impacts include (but are not limited to) traffic on rural roads, noise pollution, pressure on septic and well systems, and questions of building and food safety. These impacts are more hard-felt by neighbors the longer the business hours and the greater the frequency of events. And that’s the issue. As the industry has grown, many winery owners have adopted business models that rely on their winery acting, at least in part, as a commercial event venue rather than as a traditional agricultural operation. Some have experimented with hosting rock concerts, art festivals, climbing walls, and even helicopter rides to increase traffic to their rural locations.

Advocates for farm wineries have argued that these entertainment event activities should be treated as part of an agricultural operation because, under Virginia’s ‘right-to-farm’ laws, agricultural activities are not subject to local land use regulation. However, it is fair to say that most people’s notion of agriculture does not include large entertainment events on a daily or weekly basis.

The significant increase of entertainment events in the rural area has caused concern in some neighboring communities. In response, localities have created regulations for farm winery events. Counties have focused local regulations on the commercial entertainment activities of farm wineries—not impeding on agricultural activities. To the wineries’ credit, most have worked hard to be good neighbors and abide by their local county ordinances.

Local governments taking steps to regulate farm wineries’ commercial entertainment activities is nothing new. Other significant and well-known wine regions in the U.S.—such as Napa Valley and Sonoma in California— have ordinances to regulate activities that are allowed at farm wineries, and wineries in these regions have thrived. At the end of the day, businesses are most successful when they have the support of their community, and this system of regulation allows local governments to ensure that wineries serve as a positive force in their communities.

The General Assembly takes over a county issue

Under pressure from the wine industry in 2007, the General Assembly enacted legislation that took away a county’s ability to restrict any activities that are “usual and customary” for Virginia farm wineries. The changes to the Virginia Code required that these “usual and customary” activities and events be allowed by-right— without any local regulation unless there is a “substantial impact on the health, safety or welfare of the public.”

This change was problematic for a couple of reasons. First, this legislation meant that the General Assembly was stepping into the realm of local zoning and planning— historically the realm of local governments. Second—the law’s wording is vague, and some wineries began to defend all sorts of entertainment activities as “usual and customary” for their agricultural ventures.

The lack of specific guidelines from the state legislation as to what are “usual and customary” activities, as well as what are considered “substantial” impacts on the surrounding communities, put localities in a bind. It limited their ability to regulate commercial entertainment activities taking place in rural areas. The General Assembly was pushing a “topdown” solution to an issue that is local in nature—varying from county to county and from winery to winery.

What happened in Fauquier

Fauquier County was one of the localities left in limbo due to the General Assembly’s 2007 legislation. Prior to 2007, Fauquier had an ordinance which specifically addressed special events and commercial entertainment activities held at farm wineries—an ordinance that the county government had developed with the help of local winery owners and the Virginia Winery Association. The County required that wineries seek approval to go beyond what the County saw as normal wine production practices—meaning that production, marketing, and tasting activities were all permitted byright. Yet, due to the ambiguous nature of the General Assembly’s 2007 legislation—as well as an influx of wineries into the area— Fauquier County was forced to re-examine the ordinance that it had in place. It was decided that they had to come up with something new.

So, in 2008 the Fauquier County government began to draft a new ordinance. County staff researched the issue heavily— consulting regional wineries and citizens; looking into what has been done in other wine regions; and analyzing what is actually usual and customary for the farm wineries in Fauquier County.

Their research led them to propose an ordinance in 2012 that reaffirms the wineries’ right to on-site tastings and consumption of wine during normal business hours. The new ordinance also offers an application process for extending normal business hours during the summer and on through September. As for events, the ordinance provides for numerous special events by-right; 24 annually. Only if the winery wants to host more frequent or much larger events does the ordinance require the winery to seek approval from the County—and it provides a process for that as well.

The ordinance was brought before the Fauquier Board of Supervisors in July of this year, and it was passed by a 4-1 vote—starting a new phase of what had become a highly contentious and emotional debate in the community.

Counties should find the right balance

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Many of the region’s farm wineries have adopted business models that depend heavily on commercial entertainment activities.

PEC supports farm wineries as agricultural entities. We feel that the debate surrounding Fauquier’s ordinance has little to do with the agricultural activities of farm wineries. Rather, it is about the commercial entertainment activities wineries are hosting in the rural area. We believe that these entertainment activities should be accessory to a winery’s operation—not the primary focus. If these activities are to be the primary focus, then the winery should be regulated as a commercial operation.

PEC supported Fauquier’s ordinance because we felt it succeeded in striking a reasonable balance. We believe it will address the concerns of a variety of legitimate interests—promoting the production of locally-made wines; protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public; and respecting adjacent landowners’ expectations of their rural lifestyle.

While PEC supported the adoption of a revised ordinance in Fauquier, we recognize that each county is different. Multiple interests and considerations must be weighed, and PEC believes that it is the local governments— not the General Assembly—who are in the best position to determine what the right balance is for their particular communities. In other words, what makes sense for Fauquier may not make sense in Albemarle, Madison, or Loudoun.

Growing together

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Wineries, like any rural land use, come with direct impacts to the land. Local governments should be able decide what the right balance is for their rural lands and communities. Photo by David Anhold

This issue has become emotional and personal for many in Fauquier County. Winery owners and their neighbors each have personal or monetary interests in the outcome of this heated debate. It is crucial in times like these that the parties involved remember that they are a community; nothing will be accomplished if there isn’t room for civil discourse.

Despite the controversy this issue has caused, there is a silver lining. These are growing pains— issues that we are confronted with as we grow and as we figure out how to do so together, as communities.

PEC has staff on the ground in our 9-county region—people who live, work and play in those communities. We have long supported wineries as an important addition to our region, as well as to Virginia’s agricultural heritage and our local economies. They are producing wines with flavors that are distinctly Virginian; something that we can all be proud of. For this reason, PEC strives to serve Virginia wines at our events—and we use our popular Buy Fresh Buy Local program to connect 78 participating wineries with consumers.

PEC supports local agriculture, and we also support local governments’ authority to set local zoning and planning laws. There has to be a respectful balance. We believe that localities need to respect and appreciate wineries as a thriving part of their communities and economies—and wineries should work to function as respectful, considerate neighbors. This balancing act and mutual respect is the only way we can grow together.

This article was featured in our Fall 2012 Member Newsletter, The Piedmont View