Winery, rural event center regulations ferment into hot button issue

Allowing wineries to become rural event centers has become a heated discussion among commissioners and South Whidbey residents alike.

Business owners have said the existing regulations are too restrictive and “problematic” while residents have complained that the events destroy the rural atmosphere of their neighborhoods. The Island County commissioners could not agree last week on how to approach these regulations for wineries and rural event centers, but agreed that the issue needed to be addressed at some point.

“It’s creating a problem, it has been creating a problem, it’s not a new problem,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, during a Wednesday work session.

Commissioners reviewed specific changes to the code brought forward by Comforts of Whidbey winery and Price Johnson argued that the board push the winery ordinance update through the public process now. Commissioner Jill Johnson disagreed saying those changes should be done within the scope of the ongoing comprehensive plan update due next year.

Commissioner Rick Hannold agreed.

“I support the wineries, the small scale event centers, I agree the code… is pretty much a mess,” Hannold said. “My hope is we can wrap it all into one deal… one nice package.”

Ultimately, commissioners finally agreed to increase the permitting for a temporary rural event center permit from one year to two as a small gesture, allowing rural locations and wineries to book events more than one year in advance. This small code change will be brought to a future board meeting for approval.

Maro Walsh lives near Comforts of Whidbey and is one of 20 or so residents who are upset about the noise and traffic from the winery’s weddings. Walsh said she supports the commissioners’ decision to delay the updating ordinance but not the extended temporary permit.

“That’s disappointing,” Walsh said. “The temporary permit allows anybody to have a rural event center without meeting the requirements.”

Walsh said the group of angry residents near Comforts of Whidbey has grown over the last couple of years as the weddings have increased in frequency.

And while commissioners seemed to support the need to update regulations for wineries as rural event centers, she hopes they will also consider the quality of life of nearby residents.

“I hope that discussion will be much broader than one winery trying to have large events,” Walsh said.

Price Johnson argued for the larger code changes because it is an immediate problem that needs to be addressed to allow people to run their businesses.

“We have specific contradictions that are causing problems right now,” Price Johnson said.

“I think it deserves to have the public conversations. We have a draft already, just run it through for these code corrections … it’s a very narrow focus.”

Business owners have waited long enough, Price Johnson said.

“We made promises to this community that it would be addressed,” Price Johnson said. “We have people trying to run a business on an annual permit.”

On the contrary, Johnson said that in efforts to eliminate “siloing,” or taking issues individually, the board should make the decisions within the comp plan update.

Price Johnson countered that those are broad topics and she’s talking about specific language code, a narrower focus.

“I’m not interested in having broad agro-tourism conversation outside of the comprehensive plan… you’re misunderstanding my request,” she said.

Johnson stressed that she felt it would be unfair to take the winery discussion on when different industries have been told to wait.

“We’ve said to multiple communities, ‘We get that you have a problem, you need to hold until we update the comprehensive plan,’ ” Johnson said.

Commissioner Hannold agreed that the discussion should be held within the larger scope of the comp plan, adding “I’m just sitting here staying out of the fight.”

The larger code changes were have been championed by Spoiled Dog Winery owner and new Island County Planning Commission member Karen Krug who said wineries and rural event centers are limited under the county’s current code.

Krug said the board’s concession will help some rural event centers in the short term, but doesn’t affect the long-term problems with the county’s code.

“It gives people predictability in wedding planning,” Krug said.

When it comes to wineries and rural event centers, Krug said there’s “such a conflict” within different parts of the code “it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I’d like to see that part of the code cleaned up to make sense,” Krug said.

Carl and Rita Comfort, of Comfort Farm and Winery, wrote to the county on the issue stating that “lacking clear definition, those wineries have been forced to conform to, and apply for, stated uses that are clumsy at best…”