Howard wineries bill faces final vote amid difficult negotiation

Complex housing issue also discussed

March 31, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Visiting a local winery seems like a simple, attractive idea to many in Howard County, but a bill that would allow vintners to set up shop in the county faces a complex path as advocates look to allay rural residents' concerns that the new establishments would draw large, possibly disruptive crowds.

The County Council is facing a similarly complex negotiation as it seeks to reform a housing law intended to ensure a supply of housing affordable for people with moderate incomes. Officials want to give developers some alternatives. But housing advocates, developers and county officials don't agree on the details.

A final County Council vote on wineries is scheduled Monday night. Although Columbia hosts the successful Wine in the Woods celebration, which attracts thousands of people to Symphony Woods each May, Howard County has no wineries because local zoning law has no provision for them. Everyone who spoke on the issue at a council work session said they'd like to change that.

The problem is that winery advocates and potential owners want as few restrictions as possible to encourage new businesses, while some western county residents, fearing large weekend crowds or long lines of vehicles on narrow residential streets, want a more restrictive law.

"We're trying to find that balance," county planning director Marsha McLaughlin told the council. "I look at this [law] as being a first step" that encourages at least a couple of wineries to start; then officials would see whether changes are needed as buesiness develops.

But the discussion quickly moved to talk regarding "cluster preservation parcels" in residential areas versus preserved farmland in rural settings. The council discussed how many people should be allowed at potential five-acre wineries, versus those with at least 10 acres, compared to how many should be allowed to visit wineries with 25 acres or more. Then there's the question of restrictions on the size of roads to wineries.

"This is the first process I've been through that the size of roads is discussed," Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, told the council at Monday evening's discussion. "At least I know what a collector road is now."

He said a new winery in rural Frederick county is attracting 200 to 500 people on weekends without any restrictions on access roads or attendance — and without any problems. In all of Maryland, he said, only one Eastern Shore county tries to limit the number of people visiting a winery. Most wineries are small and don't have large groups of visitors, he said.

County Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, is wary of allowing small wineries on preserved land in residential developments where the homes are clustered to allow more open space. Allowing a winery on a 5- or 6-acre plot in a residential area could cause congestion, he said. He pushed for anyone who wants to establish a winery in such a setting to face a more rigorous "conditional use" zoning process, which requires a public hearing. That would allow regulators to devise restrictions on an individual basis for each case.

"I support the wineries," Fox said.

Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, would like to remove the bill's limit of no more than 50 people allowed at one time to visit a winery on 10 acres to 25 acres. She had noted earlier that one full tour bus could hold 50 people.

Sigaty also said she wouldn't want the bill to prohibit a new residential community potentially designed to surround a small winery as an amenity. "That's opening the door for some imagination and creativity," she said.

Legislation to allow for wineries failed to reach a vote last year in the face of objections from western county residents who feared, under the proposed law, crowds of up to 500 people allowed for up to 15 "special events" per year.

"It's time. It's time for Howard County to join the majority of other counties that incentivize wineries," Robert Pearre told the council at the March 21 public hearing. But Theodore Mariani, a representative forConcerned Citizens of Western Howard County, which has battled a range of uses from used car lots to cell towers, said large gatherings at rural wineries would be "devastating to nearby communities."

Mariani attended the work session and said his group supports wineries too, if restrictions are put in place. Occasional well attended private home parties are different than weekly commercial events, he said and "Howard County is not Frederick County," he added in reply to Atticks. "We have a history of good planning. The biggest issue is putting these things in cluster subdivisions." If enough controls were added for those situations, "The rest of the bill could be more lenient," he said.

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