Neighbors, rural wineries disputing proposed Island County regulations

Island County planning staff and the planning commission are attempting to wade through a sea of public comments that are in conflict with each other.

Staff presented draft event regulations to the commission Monday in an ongoing effort to create new code for events and adult beverage facilities in rural zoned areas.

Though there have been comments regarding breweries and distilleries, the majority of the conversation has revolved around wineries and their neighbors. Most comments at Monday’s meeting either said the draft regulations were too restrictive or not restrictive enough.

“It seems like these are significantly different than current code,” Freeland resident Tim Kangas said to commissioners regarding the most recent draft regulations.

“They disregard professional staff recommendations to you. They’re ignoring nationwide best practices and citizens’ inputs while, and regrettably, benefiting business interests at the expense of the desires of the majority of the desires of the county residents.”

Kangas has been a vocal opponent to events in rural areas, especially ones that involve amplified music. The draft proposes that rural commercial centers, such as wineries, could apply for a permit that allows 10 events per year, but there would be exemptions for gatherings with fewer than 50 people that fall within the site’s capacity. Kangas took particular issue with the proposed exemptions and said they make the regulations “unacceptable to me and my neighbors” who he said have provided input over the last five years.

Rita Comfort, owner of Comforts of Whidbey, told commissioners the regulations were too restrictive and would dissuade future wineries from opening in the county, which she said goes directly against the county’s comprehensive plan its goals.

“There’s only six or seven wineries on the island right now,” Comfort said. “It’s not like there’s a lot of them, and with this code, there won’t be. People won’t start more wineries on Whidbey Island.”

Comfort argued more events should be allowed because “wineries and events go together. They bring tourists to the island.” She said she’s been trying to work with the county on these regulations since she started her business nine years ago, and expressed frustration over both event and food preparation limitations.

“Are you trying to shut us down?” She asked the commission. “That’s what you’re doing.”

Comfort’s neighbor and another vocal opponent of rural events, Mike Holata, also spoke in opposition to the exemptions on events that would require a permit.

“We don’t want any events,” he said. “Wineries make wine.”

He also argued amplified sound shouldn’t be an option for rural wineries, even if it is inside. He said because windows and doors are likely to be opened in the summer, there will still be an impact on surrounding residents. However, later in the meeting Holata seemed more amenable to working out differences with the winery.

Commissioner Margaret Andersen recommended changing the guidelines to allow 24 events per year, with a limit of three per month between June and August. For the rest of the year, two events per month would be the maximum. After she made this suggestion, Holata said he would be willing to sit down with the Comforts to try and work out something they could both work with.

“We can disagree without going to war with each other,” he said.

Comfort stood up again to remind the room the code is meant to be applied countywide. She said she would work with staff to try and create regulations that would work for her establishment as well as others, but she didn’t feel it would be productive for her to just sit down with her neighbor.

“You need to know what my other neighbors think; this is not just about us and the Holatas,” she said. “It can’t be resolved just because he agrees to something. It’s about Island County. It’s wineries. It’s about what wineries can do.”

She said the exemptions should be considered on a site-by-site basis because noise mitigation will vary depending on the property. She argued larger wineries with large setbacks should be able to allow gatherings of more people as long as there were plans for screening, parking and noise management. There was also a suggestion that wineries be required to post large events ahead of time, so that nearby residents can be aware.

Staff will present Andersen’s recommendation for event limitations to the county commissioners and seek input on what kind of events can be exempt from permitting, under which conditions.

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