Law changed to allow events at more N.J. vineyards

The Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May. Of the state's 48 wineries, 19 are enrolled in the farmland preservation program.
The Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May. Of the state's 48 wineries, 19 are enrolled in the farmland preservation program.
Posted: July 12, 2014

Vineyards on preserved farmland can sell some merriment along with their wine, under a bipartisan bill signed last week by Gov. Christie that removes a hurdle to holding festivals, wedding receptions, and private parties there.

Among the state's 48 licensed wineries, 19 are enrolled in the farmland preservation program, which means they have surrendered their right to sell the land for development.

"The state is encouraging farms to go into preservation. We want to keep green vistas," said Assemblyman Ron Dancer, a Republican who represents parts of Burlington, Ocean, Middlesex, and Monmouth Counties, who cosponsored the bill. But, he added, the issue was whether the vineyard owners should be prohibited from marketing their products through special events on their grounds.

The measure settles the issue in favor of agricultural tourism and festivals that stimulate business.

"Farmers will now have the ability to promote their operations without conflicting with the spirit of their farmland preservation," Dancer said. "New Jersey, amazingly, is the sixth in the nation in wine production, and wineries are a growth industry we should support."

The problem arose when the owner of the Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May alerted legislators to "local resistance" to events as a result of concerns about increased traffic and noise, Dancer said.

In response to residents' complaints, the state Agricultural Development Committee, which oversees farmland preservation, decided that the events fell outside the parameters of agricultural use.

"A winery is a farm, and the product is grapes," said Barbara Wilde, owner of Willow Creek, a 50-acre farm that also grows blueberries, blackberries, asparagus, artichokes, and other vegetables.

"If we do an event, I will sell $15,000 worth of wine," she said. "How can they say I'm not promoting my product? And if I have an event, people will go to the hotels and go to the shops and go on tours, and this will put money in everyone's pocket."

Wilde said that now, she could begin to advertise festivals and schedule weddings.

"It's a start in the right direction," she said, adding that at least 10 other wineries ran into similar roadblocks.

Among the wineries that will be affected are the Tomasello Winery in Winslow, DiBella in Woolwich, and Cedarvale Winery in Logan.

Under the new law, rules are established to address the concerns of residents and still allow the events at the vineyards on weekends and holidays. The events can also be staged on weekdays when the Agricultural Development Committee approves them in advance.

Another condition is that the gross income from the special events must be less than half of the annual gross income of the winery.

Also, only existing farm buildings or temporary structures, such as an open canopy or tent, can be used, and live bands would be restricted to playing inside buildings if local noise ordinances require.

The law establishes a 44-month pilot program for the preserved-farmland wineries. But Dancer said that a new bill, introduced last week, would make the program permanent after a review.

"There is a reason why New Jersey is called the Garden State," said Assemblywoman Celeste Riley, a Democrat who represents Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland Counties, and a cosponsor.

"This bill will give our vineyards a competitive edge and boost our economy by providing guidelines to allow special events on protected farmland wineries," she said in a statement.

Other sponsors included Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty (D., Gloucester) and Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden).

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

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