Winery debate ferments into complaint

Maro Walsh and Asara Lovejoy stand across the street from their South Whidbey homes Monday. Comforts of Whidbey winery is building an event center

A new community group is trying to combat proposed regulations that would allow large events at wineries, functions they say disrupt their quality of life.

And they are not happy with the commissioner who championed it.

Neighbors Interested in Commonsense Economics, or NICE, have charged Commissioner Helen Price Johnson with trying to push through ordinance changes last month without proper public input because of a personal connection with the winery Comforts of Whidbey.

Price Johnson said Friday that while she’s known the Comforts for years, she did not press for the changes for them alone.

“I can’t figure it out… they’re old friends?” said Maro Walsh, a spokesperson for NICE which comprises 20 or so residents around Comforts of Whidbey. “She keeps saying, ‘My community wants this.’ Only one winery wants this. Why is she pushing it so much when it’s the only winery that wants it?”

Allowing rural event centers to have large-scale events and weddings has drawn the ire of neighboring residents over the years because of the noise and traffic. As a quick fix, commissioners approved a temporary rural event center permit to allow time to address the issue within the larger comprehensive plan update due in 2016.

At a work session last month, Price Johnson argued for proposed ordinance changes that would allow for winery-specific rural events and clean up “inconsistencies” in the county’s code dealing with wineries.

Carl Comfort and his wife, Rita, hired Larry Kwarsick, a former planning director who operates a private consulting firm, to assist them with writing the code changes that were proposed to the Island County Planning Commission and later the county commissioners. At least two other wineries were sent the code for review.

After a heated discussion, Price Johnson’s proposal to update the county’s winery regulations was voted down by the other two commissioners.

Price Johnson said Friday that that her argument for making changes to the winery code was largely misunderstood  because she was simply trying to change a very small part of the code, not make the sweeping changes proposed by the Comforts.

In addition, Price Johnson said she has a “stack of public input on the issue” and that it’s “disingenuous to make this about the Comforts.”

Commissioner Jill Johnson said she felt that “extreme changes” were proposed that were more than simple code changes.

“What I saw was definitely Comp Plan worth conversations,” Johnson said.

The South Whidbey Record spoke to nearly every Whidbey Island winery and many said they had no interest in having weddings or events on their property. Two wineries said it was only a plan for the distant future.

“We’re set up for it, but it’s not something in our business plan,” said Greg Martinez of Holmes Harbor Cellars. But the ordinance changes are “something we’re following,” Martinez said.

Greg Osenbach, owner of Whidbey Island Winery, said that they might be interested in doing weddings at some point, but not at the expense of their neighbors.

“You can’t survive without the support of your community,” Osenbach said. He added that he was “kind of disturbed” that the normally good relationship between wineries and their neighbors is “under siege” at Comforts of Whidbey.

Comfort said Thursday that he started reaching out for neighbor support when he hosted his first two weddings in 2012. The following year they hosted seven weddings and one last year, Comfort said.

“We were very cognizant of the noise in all directions,” Comfort said, leading them to begin construction last year of a large indoor space they hope will help mitigate the noise.

Walsh said she and her neighbors were initially in favor of supporting the Comforts and rural events at wineries, but did not like being left out of the process.

When neighbors have tried to reach out to Comfort by email, it has resulted in “long combative replies,” Walsh said.

With the new Comfort construction, Walsh said NICE believes the additional space will simply mean louder, larger-scale weddings, and that Comfort is using the new winery code regulations to work around more stringent requirements for rural event centers.

Comfort said that he and his wife looked into becoming a rural event center early on, but realized that the requirements would not address the needs of a winery.

His intention in submitting the updated language, Comfort said, was to create a starting point for the county to work on. He said it may have been “naive” to think that the process would be simple.

Planning Director David Wechner said code is generally written by county staff and reviewed by attorneys unless a resident wants to file for a change.

“The ‘regular route’ is to file a comp plan amendment application and fee when an individual wants to propose a code change,” Wechner said. “I’d venture to say we’re more the experts in constructing and implementing code language.”

Karen Krug, owner of Spoiled Dog Winery who also sits on the planning commission, said while she is not interested in doing large-scale events, clarification of the winery ordinances is necessary.

What was proposed, Krug said, “is not really inconsistent for what wineries do in other parts of the state. It’s not out of the box.”