WEST CAPE MAY — Willow Creek Winery has received all the necessary state environmental permits to open and has passed at least five field inspections by the Department of Environmental Protection.
“They’ve gotten whatever they needed. We have no issues with them as far as DEP permits or approvals,” DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said Thursday.
Borough officials recently questioned whether the Stevens Street vineyard has received all the necessary permits to open, which it reportedly is on the verge of doing, pending some fire-safety approvals.
A group of neighbors has expressed concerns about the vineyard’s plans to host weddings amid worries that will cause traffic, noise and other problems. The concerns helped spur Borough Commission last week to authorize Borough Solicitor Frank Corrado to contact the Cape May County Agricultural Development Board, which approved plans for the vineyard, to make sure the winery is legal to open.
Ragonese said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin is an avid newspaper reader and he read an article about the issue earlier this week in The Press of Atlantic City. Ragonese said Martin directed his staff to investigate the matter.
That investigation revealed the winery has the state environmental permits it needs and that it got some of them as far back as 2005, Ragonese said.
“In 2005 they got freshwater wetlands permits for a transition area and an access permit,” Ragonese said.
Willow Creek owner Barbara Bray Wilde was not surprised at the news.
“I am well aware that I have all my necessary permits,” Wilde said.
The borough, however, is looking at more than just DEP permits. Corrado is looking for proof of a permit having to do with crossing a railroad right-of-way from the state Department of Transportation. Another regarding septic system discharges may involve the Cape May County Department of Health.
Ragonese said the operation does not need a Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit because it is under the threshold of 150 parking spaces.
Wilde complained earlier this week that the borough did not participate in the public hearings before the agricultural development board and is now harassing her.
“Regretfully, rather than participating in the process in a meaningful way the borough has attempted, after the fact, to subvert ongoing construction by engaging in a pattern of harassment and discrimination against Willow Creek, treating this farm differently than similarly situated enterprises,” Wilde wrote in a letter to the agricultural development board.
Wilde said calls have been made to the DEP and other agencies alleging violations, “or other bogus claims,” even before she has opened. She claimed “borough representatives” have given false and misleading information to local residents, construction officials and the media.
Wilde said the DEP had inspected her property 27 times and found nothing wrong. Ragonese, however, said enforcement records were researched and they could only find five inspections of the property, most initiated after calls by neighbors, dating to 2005. He said no violations were found.
“Each one was cleared without a violation,” Ragonese said.
Wilde said some of the DEP visits came before 2005 and some may not have involved any paperwork being filled out. Wilde said she was not always there at the time but the visitors identified themselves as being from the DEP. Wilde said she could double check her files but the number of visits “was way more than five.”
The DEP’s involvement does not necessarily include issues the neighbors are worried about, such as traffic or noise. The farm has some protections under the state’s Right to Farm Act, but Ragonese cautioned that this mainly pertains to agricultural practices involving crops and livestock.
“If there are weddings with noise and trucks and traffic, that is not a Right to Farm protection. That would go to local or Cape May County health officials,” Ragonese said.
Borough officials are still researching the issue and declined comment Thursday.
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