Credit: via Montgomery Planning Department

There are parts of northern Montgomery County, in its protected agricultural reserve, that are home to the gravelly soils and hilly topography ideal for growing red wine grapes, according to Drew Baker, the founder of Old Westminster Winery in Carroll County.

He told the Montgomery Council during a public hearing Tuesday that, working with a geologist, he identified soils in that area that are “particularly well-suited” for growing grapes to make great wine.

The findings led Baker to buy a 117-acre farm in Clarksburg, where he plans to invest millions of dollars to open a winery. Next year, he and his staff will plant 30,000 grape vines.

“Today we’re in the middle of a two-year period of preparation,” Baker said. “We’re establishing the foundation for a multigenerational vineyard.”

It’s that investment that led him to join other winery owners in testifying Tuesday in favor of proposed changes in county zoning that would lessen restrictions on the operation of wineries, breweries and distilleries in the agricultural reserve. The changes, proposed by council President Hans Riemer and member Craig Rice, would enable farms that produce alcohol to host up to nine events with more than 300 people attending annually as well as allow the operation of on-site tasting rooms.

The proposed changes have generated some controversy among residents of the bucolic 93,000-acre reserve, where the county significantly restricted new development in 1980 to preserve the area’s rural character.

The county’s agricultural reserve, in green.

Clarksburg farmer Tom Hartstock warned the council that the changes could result in entrepreneurs buying farm land in the reserve to turn it into alcohol production facilities.

“This will result in the breaking up of operating farms and a proliferation of drinking establishments in the agricultural reserve,” Hartstock said.

James Brown, a board member of the Sugarloaf Citizens Association, said more alcohol production and the accompanying tasting rooms “will inevitably lead to an increase in alcohol-impaired driving on winding country roads.”

However, residents concerned about the proposal were outnumbered by business people who envision the new economic opportunity that could come with approval of the changes. Although the reserve is already home to some wineries and breweries, such as Rocklands Farm Winery & Market and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, supporters said the proposed changes would clear up confusion in the zoning code by expressly allowing alcohol production in agriculture and rural residential zones.

“This zoning text amendment is important to our success because it brings clarity to what is a confusing and broken zoning code,” said Robert Butz, a Poolesville farmer who said he is building a winery. “The agricultural reserve can’t remain frozen in time.” He said the proposed provision that would allowing tasting rooms to operate would enable him to sell his wines at his farm.

Ed Boyce, co-founder of Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy in Frederick County, told the council Black Ankle has purchased 243 acres in Clarksburg where it plans to establish a winery similar to its Mt. Airy operation.

“I think the great wines of the East Coast are going to come from Central Maryland,” Boyce said. He described soils in the area as “better than anywhere else” he has seen in the region.

He expressed concern about any possible amendments that could limit the number of visitors to a tasting room and described doing so as a “nonstarter” for his business. For example, he feared an amendment could be added to the bill that would restrict the number of visitors and require winery operators to turn away customers once the limit was reached.

“Those are the kind of things that are deal breakers,” Boyce said.

The zoning changes were also supported by Waredaca Brewing Co. and Brookeville Beer Farm—two small breweries that operate in the northern part of the county. Phil Muth, co-founder of Brookeville Beer Farm, noted his brewery employs 11 workers full-time and 38 part-time employees and that craft alcohol production is a growing industry.

Riemer said Wednesday that council members are discussing potential amendments to the proposed zoning changes and members haven’t determined whether they’ll alter the language of the proposed changes.

The proposal would require such farms to grow on-site “some ingredients” used in producing beer, wine or distilled alcohol. On Tuesday, some residents and even business owners said they were concerned that if that language in the proposal wasn’t changed to set a minimum number of acres that farm owners must plant, then entrepreneurs may consider opening a winery or brewery and importing ingredients from elsewhere. The residents said such businesses wouldn’t be in line with the spirit of the agricultural reserve, which was created by the county to protect working farms.

The bill already has a super majority of support on the nine-member council. In addition to the backing of Riemer and Rice, council members George Leventhal, Sidney Katz, Nancy Floreen, Nancy Navarro and Tom Hucker have signed on as co-sponsors.

The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee is next scheduled to review the proposal on June 11.