County adopts winery code

After decades without clear definitions in its code, Island County has adopted new language to address wineries, cideries, breweries and distilleries in rural zones.

The county board of commissioners unanimously adopted the updated code last week at its regular meeting, but the comments at the public hearing were not all in favor.

Rita Comfort, owner of Comforts of Whidbey winery, told the commissioners the new language provided inconsistent regulations for wineries than other businesses in rural areas.

She said she has worked with the county for nine years and tried to demonstrate that events are part of normal winery operations.

“After tirelessly working with the county regarding our winery, I urge the commissioners to delay any approval of this presented code change,” Comfort said.

She noted language adopted that provides standards needed for an adult beverage facility to be accessed by a private road, and said a restaurant that also holds events was permitted on a road that falls well below the outlined standards.

Comfort said she hired an attorney that will be representing her business moving forward.

“You will hear from her soon,” she told the commission.

Comfort later said in an interview that her intention is for the county to have it in code that businesses permitted for these types of activities will be able to continue to do so with the access they have without additional restrictions.

The new code requires these facilities to be on a public county road, county collector road or a private road that is up to the fire code of a 25 mph road with a fire lane.

For a new winery, distillery or cidery to be permitted on a private road, the owner would also have to demonstrate legal access to use the road and a maintenance agreement from all other property owners that also use the road.

Public Works Director Bill Oakes said the new regulations only apply to new businesses and not existing permitted facilities.

“Most private drives in the county will not meet those standards without significant improvement,” Oakes said.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson called it an “exceptionally high standard,” but said she would accept the recommendation of the county engineer.

The commissioners broke for a brief executive session to discuss the potential litigation and did come back with amended language on the access piece of the code.

However, the 25 mph county road standard remained and the changes allowed for more ways in which owners could show legal right of access to the road.

Part of Comfort’s contention with the code included its definitions of what activities are considered normal for operations.

The regulations allow for events such as wine-maker dinners, tasting events and promotional events that are within the property’s capacity and either inside or outside with a submitted noise mitigation plan.

Other events, such as weddings, receptions or retreats, will require a separate event permit.

Comfort has repeatedly told commissioners and the planning commission at public hearings that the other types of events are just as vital to the operations of a winery and shouldn’t require an additional permit.

“If we are pouring our wine, it’s a wine event,” she said at the meeting.

The rural event regulations, which were originally part of the same draft code, will be updated at a later time.

The new code also sets standards for screening, setbacks and food service activities to ensure compatibility with rural areas.

During the process of creating the code, the planning commission created a subcommittee for the project, multiple public hearings were held, stakeholder interviews were conducted and over 100 written comments were submitted.

Commissioners said they felt the code establishes a good balance between business and community interests.

“No matter what we do, we’re not going to be able to please everybody all the time,” said Commissioner Rick Hannold.

“There’s something in here for everybody,” Hannold said.

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