WEST CAPE MAY — A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against a Stevens Street vineyard amid claims it was hosting weddings without following conditions required under a new state law.
The case involving Willow Creek Winery is just the latest installment of a long-standing battle between the borough and the vineyard owned by Barbara Wilde.
Both sides had praised a new state law Gov. Chris Christie signed in July to govern weddings and other special occasion events held at vineyards. The law was designed to allow vineyards to expand their businesses but only by following 11 specific conditions that would make sure they remained largely agricultural operations.
In August, the borough filed suit in New Jersey Superior Court claiming about half the conditions were not being followed, including getting site-plan approval from the borough and following local ordinances.
Judge Allen Littlefield this week ruled that the borough does not govern any violations but they are up to the State Agricultural Development Committee, or SADC, to enforce. The SADC can also pass off enforcement to the Cape May County Agricultural Development Board.
“We’re very happy. We said they had no jurisdiction. It’s not up to the municipality to enforce this. They’re spending tax dollars to go after one business,” said Colin G. Bell, Willow Creek’s attorney.
Borough Attorney Frank Corrado said the borough “disagrees with the decision,” but he stressed that there was no ruling on the merits of the case. Borough Commission will meet in closed session next Wednesday night to talk about whether to appeal the decision or take the complaint to the SADC. Corrado said they could decide to do both.
“All he did was say take the complaint to the SADC. He did not say she (Wilde) was right,” Corrado said.
One issue of contention is whether the winery needs local site-plan approvals. Bell argues it would only need this if it seeks to expand and has to secure local building permits. Corrado argues the operation needs local site-plan approval to host any “special occasion event.” He said it has hosted weddings, birthdays, political fundraisers, and others. Corrado said merely selling wine at these events does not give the operation Right to Farm protections.
“She is running a commercial event venue disguised as a winery. She could be running a bar or a restaurant. That is not what the statute was intended to do,” said Corrado.
Borough Commission is also set to discuss a possible new noise ordinance next week. Corrado said the borough has a noise ordinance but because it has not been approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection there is a question of whether it is enforceable.
“We have to get one in place and we need to get DEP approval,” Corrado said.
Bell said the operation is in the back of the property and “is not close to anything,” but he said they will comply with whatever noise ordinance is on the books.
Corrado said there are also curfew and traffic control issues to deal with.
Bell claims his client is being singled out as two farms next to Willow Creek have had events and “no one ever goes after them.”
“They say it’s a guise for events but that’s how you sell wine. She’s growing grapes and farming the land. She employs a lot of people year round. She uses sustainable agricultural practices,” said Bell.
Corrado said the events at the two nearby farms were more closely related to agriculture.
“We welcome farm festivals,” said Corrado.
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