WEST CAPE MAY — Borough officials are questioning whether a controversial new Stevens Street vineyard has the proper permits to open while also asking county agricultural officials to clarify how Right to Farm Act provisions govern the operation.
Willow Creek Winery has recently drawn attention from neighbors and the Borough Commission due to plans to host weddings in a newly constructed building that totals about 12,000 square feet.
Neighbors, concerned about issues such as noise and traffic at the 50-acre farm, have questioned whether the vineyard is hiding behind New Jersey’s Right to Farm Act protections to create a commercial enterprise that has little to do with agriculture.
The commission authorized Borough Solicitor Frank Corrado to get “guidance and clarification” from the Cape May County Agricultural Development Board, or CADB, which approved the winery’s plans and oversees Right to Farm Act issues in the county.
In 2003 the CADB approved a payment of $890,000 to permanently deed restrict 36 acres of the farm so it would remain in agriculture.
Corrado, in a Sept. 27 letter to the CADB, said the winery already has a temporary certificate of occupancy, is in the process of getting its liquor license, and is close to opening. The letter goes on to ask what authority the borough has in regard to traffic, noise, parking and other issues at large events the winery hosts.
“Absent some authority to the contrary, it is the borough’s position that the Right to Farm Act, and an approval granted there-under, does not deprive the borough of the ability to exercise reasonable control over these aspects of large special events,” Corrado wrote.
The letter also questions whether the winery received the necessary state Department of Environmental Protection permits, regulating such things as sewage and wetlands encroachment, and state Department of Transportation approval to cross a railroad line.
Willow Creek Winery owner Barbara Bray Wilde on Monday said Corrado’s letter “borders on the ridiculous.” Wilde said calls made to the agencies that regulate the operation have led to numerous inspections of her operation.
“The DEP has been out here 27 times and nothing has ever been wrong. It’s insane; it’s total discrimination and harassment. They’re killing my health and it’s costing me millions of dollars,” Wilde said.
She noted the approval process began seven years ago and only now are borough officials raising questions. In a letter to the CADB, a response to Corrado’s letter, she wrote: “Oddly, Mr. Corrado neglects to mention that West Cape May failed to participate in any of the CADB public hearings regarding Willow Creek Winery. Furthermore, when the county sought input from West Cape May relative to the project the borough ignored numerous written requests for comment during the approval process.”
Borough Commissioner Ramey Geyer, who has been largely supportive of Willow Creek’s plans, agreed the borough should have been involved earlier but he defended Corrado’s letter. Geyer said the borough needs verification of approvals and some guidance on how much municipal control there is on farms covered under the Right to Farm Act.
Geyer said he wants the winery to be able to host any events it is allowed to have under the state law and notes neither the CADB nor the State Agricultural Development Committee, or SADC, specifically prohibits weddings. One thing missing, Geyer said, is the farm and the borough working together to solve such issues.
Mayor Pam Kaithern said Corrado’s “thorough review of the files” has failed to find several permits the winery needs to operate, including approval to cross the rail line and septic system approval.
“Right to Farm does not pre-empt many of the permits we’re talking about,” Kaithern said. “Our goal is to protect the public interest and make sure everybody involved is abiding by the rules.”
Neighbors of the vineyard say they want it to succeed but they also don’t want to suffer from too much traffic or noise on their residential streets. Stevens Street resident Hilary Pritchard said that due to the application being done under Right to Farm, there was no local site-plan application before the local planning board where residents could voice concerns.
“We want to be good neighbors but have the same level of peace and tranquility. I personally think the winery is beautiful and can be a beautiful component to this neighborhood, but we want to make sure we all understand what the legal parameters are for noise and traffic,” Pritchard said.
Borough Commission has recently discussed adopting ordinances to control the winery’s plans, including requiring a permit to host special events on private property and drafting a new noise ordinance.
Wilde called these ordinances attempts to “pre-emptively obstruct our business” on matters already regulated by the state.
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