Where's Solomon when you need him?
The new Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May sounds like a lovely place. It has acres of grapes, decorative gardens, greenhouses - and an elaborate new 12,600-square-foot building with a commercial kitchen and enough bathrooms for hundreds of people.
According to Barbara Ernst, the head of the Cape May County Farmland Preservation Program, winery owner Barbara Bray Wilde originally said the building was for storage and wine-tasting events.
But the winery is promoting the building as a wedding site - and that's a problem.
In 2003, Wilde was paid $890,000 in farmland-preservation funds - public money - to deed-restrict the property to agricultural uses. Under that agreement, 36 acres of the 50-acre property - including the land under the new building - must be used for agriculture, and 51 percent of the winery's profits must come from agriculture.
So, the question in search of a Solomon: Should the winery be allowed to host weddings in the new building?
Ernst says no - the law does not allow it. Susan Payne, the head of the State Agriculture Development Committee, agrees with Ernst. The SADC says preserved farms can host certain events related to agricultural production - such as corn mazes and school tours - but not weddings, parties, corporate events, etc.
Complicating the matter is a bill in the Legislature that would specifically allow preserved farms to host weddings.
So ... should government get out of the way of this private business and let the winery host its weddings?
Or would allowing the weddings turn the land into a "farm-themed backdrop for nonagricultural special events"? That's how Robert Vivian, the state Department of Agriculture's legislative liaison, put it.
Obviously, there must be some conditions attached to accepting farmland-preservation funds, and anyone accepting such funds knows that going in. Clearly, you can't plop a McDonald's in the middle of a field. But where's the line? And if you move the line to allow weddings, what's next?
Furthermore, the folks who argue that government should get out of the way here also need to consider this: Say you own a wedding site that competes with Willow Creek Winery. Is it fair that the winery got $890,000 in public money that enabled it to build an elaborate wedding hall to compete with you?
That sure doesn't seem fair to us.
We aren't Solomon, but we do have a hunch what he might say here:
If Willow Creek Winery wants to host weddings in its new building, all it has to do is give back the $890,000, and it can host all the weddings it wants.