Frustration was brewing Tuesday among members of the Montgomery County Council as they discussed a bill that would allow alcohol production in the upcounty agricultural preserve.
The bill would amend the county’s zoning laws to allow farms to produce wine and beer, provided the majority of the ingredients are grown locally, that the alcohol production is an “accessory use” of the farm and that no more than 225 people attend events held at the farms.
During a work session at the council offices in Rockville, several council members grew frustrated over a council legislative analyst’s recommendation that a vote on the bill be postponed until it has finished performing an agritourism study in January that will examine land use regulations associated with the proposed zoning code change.
“I’m sick and tired of sitting up here and saying ‘Let’s do another study,’ ” council member Craig Rice said. “It seems we’re talking about this overarching, glowing language when this work session is talking about details.”
Rice asked Josh Penn, a planning department staff member, what new findings the study might be expected to produce. Penn replied the study would determine how adding wineries and breweries to the reserve would impact traffic in the area.
Rice then retorted the council need to “get real and starting saying that a product of success is traffic.”
Council member George Leventhal said he too was ready to move forward with the bill.
“We are going to argue about pumpkin chucking, we are going to argue about corn mazes and we are going to get emails from community organizations disagreeing with some of the recommendations. I have been down this road before. I have seen this movie,” he said.
Prior to the comments, several business owners testified they wanted to see the bill move forward sooner rather than later, including Robert Butz, the owner of Windridge Vineyards in Frederick County. Butz also owns 30 acres of land in Darnestown, where he hopes to open a tasting room by next spring.
“The passage of the [bill] makes my business model more viable,” he said.
Butz added that grape farmers have been financially challenged by a low yield this season. But having the ability to hold special events where they are able to sell bottles of wine and food would help make up the lost revenue.
“You’ve got businesses that are facing crop shortages, and this [bill] will help them right now,” he said. “You guys have the experience and knowledge to do this.”
Council member Nancy Floreen, who is running for county executive as an independent, sympathized with the business owners.
“If anybody up here wonders why we get a bad rap from the agricultural community or the business community, welcome to the County Council,” she said. “This is unbelievable. This bill was introduced in April. This has not been a rush to judgment. We had a public hearing in May. We’ve given voice to all the concerns that we’ve heard from people.”
Should the council wait until next year to vote on the bill, there will be four new council members replacing Floreen, Leventhal, Marc Elrich and Roger Berliner, who must leave the council at the end of their terms because of term limits. But council member Nancy Navarro said she wants to see the planning department’s report and wasn’t concerned that new members would be voting on the bill if the council waited until next year.
“There will still be, hopefully, five of us that will come back with institutional knowledge that have been stewards and protectors of this agricultural reserve. So don’t worry. We’ll make sure our new colleagues are up to speed,” she said.
Council member Sidney Katz said he also favored waiting for the study to be completed, although he understood the business owners’ impatience.
“If you’re going to make an investment, it should be protected,” he said. “You have a right to be successful.”
The main issues surrounding the bill involve the requirement that a majority of ingredients involved in the alcohol production should be grown locally and the proposed cap on number of people allowed to attend events. Council President Hans Riemer said at a Monday press conference the attendance restriction was added to ensure that an event company, such as a wedding business, didn’t attempt to locate in the agricultural reserve and operate a winery on the side. Leventhal said that although he understood the rationale behind the stipulation, he was worried that downcounty residents might be discouraged from going to the farms by the prospect of making the long drive, only to find an event is full.
“In the long run, it just won’t make sense to restrict slices of the county to certain types of benefits,” he said.
Riemer, who is sponsoring the legislation along with Rice, said the details on the attendance restrictions may still need to be sorted out, but he saw no reason not to move ahead with the bill soon.
Farmers, who may be seeking to raise money from investors, “need to know if they have a path forward or not,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org