A group of wineries located on the Old Mission Peninsula filed a federal lawsuit this week against Peninsula Township for violations of the First Amendment, the Commerce Clause and Michigan’s alcohol laws. The lawsuit claims that restrictions imposed by the township’s winery ordinance have cost the wineries hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
In a press release received by Old Mission Gazette today, the wineries state that they’ve attempted to work with Peninsula Township to resolve the issues alleged in their lawsuit, including their inability to host weddings, family reunions, live music, book readings, and similar events and activities; their inability to have certain types of advertising and sell certain items like t-shirts and hats; and the restriction of growing only certain crops, with mandates to use 75 percent of their property for these crops.
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The wineries also claim that because they’re only allowed to sell Old Mission Peninsula appellation wine, this restricts their ability to buy grapes from outside the region or from out of state growers, which violates the Commerce Clause.
Chris Baldyga, co-founder of 2 Lads Winery on Smokey Hollow Road and president of the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula Association, said that while they’ve been working with township officials during the last two years to update the winery ordinance, both sides are “still so far apart” that the wineries decided to take legal action to protect their employees and businesses.
“Maybe it’s because we were coming from such old and antiquated laws and any proposed change seemed so radical that talks just broke down,” Baldyga told MiBiz.com. “We’d love to sit down with them to create a legal framework that allows for the success of all wineries out here, and also improves the climate for new entrants.”
According to the lawsuit, Peninsula Township’s winery ordinance restricts the types of events that wineries can hold to wine and food cooking classes, meetings of 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations based in Grand Traverse County, and meetings of agricultural groups.
The wineries also claim that Peninsula Township regulates the wineries in a way that overrides the Michigan Liquor Control Code, including prohibiting amplified music, mandating that wineries close by 9:30 p.m., and restricting wineries from operating restaurants and catering services.
The lawsuit also alleges that Peninsula Township’s winery ordinance violates free speech protections, illegally restricts commerce, and amounts to regulatory taking of the wineries’ full use of their property. Additionally, the lawsuit claims that the township has leveraged the ordinance as a “content-based restriction on speech” which prohibits wineries from hosting weddings, political fundraisers, family reunions, religious services and other events, which violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
“Peninsula Township has unfettered discretion in interpreting the meaning of the definition of Event and in limiting the number of times that a winery can use its land to engage in certain types of protected speech, including religious and political speech,” states the lawsuit.
The wineries also claim that more than a year ago, Peninsula Township admitted in writing that its winery ordinance is illegal and must be rewritten.
Peninsula Township is currently working to update both the winery ordinance and general zoning ordinance, which are two separate documents. Originally written in 1972, the general ordinance has had many amendments added to it over the years, but no official re-write since 1972. A public hearing about the general ordinance changes was held at the last Township Board meeting and will continue at an upcoming board meeting.
Peninsula Township Planner Randy Mielnik says they’ve been working with the wineries to update the winery ordinance, and the last scheduled meeting they had was in March 2020. He notes that the wineries canceled the April meeting, and the ordinance work was stalled due to the Covid-19 pandemic shut-down and no township meetings allowed for much of the spring and summer.
Mielnik says they haven’t heard from the wineries since they canceled the April 2020 meeting, but both he and Township Supervisor Rob Manigold felt they were making good progress on a winery ordinance rewrite (currently working on Version 7 of a rewrite), including addressing the legal issues brought up by the wineries.
View a summary of Version 7 of the Winery Ordinance rewrite here.
Also, the township made immediate provisions for the wineries this year to help them through the pandemic shut-downs and protocols, including allowing tents at the wineries earlier this year, and igloos more recently.
Baldyga says the changes they’re requesting won’t change the rural character of the Peninsula.
“The rural character of Old Mission Peninsula is superb, and we don’t want to see that change,” Baldyga said. “I don’t think you’ll see us operating our tasting rooms until 2 a.m., but even to have a family reunion or wedding reception from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. is something we want. It’s not that we want to have rock concerts until midnight, but we want what they can do in Leelanau or Benzie counties. They’re more attractive places to start a winery because of how much more open they are.”
From the press release:
“The wineries are businesses in your community that hold many common beliefs about this beautiful peninsula. What they have always tried to do is operate responsible and sustainable businesses that will continue to support the broader, collective interests of your community, and do so within the confines of existing state and federal law. Collectively they employ over 400 full and part time workers. They own or lease more than 1,500 acres in Peninsula Township with approximately 1,000 of those acres in agricultural production and approximately 400 acres in conservation. Each year they collectively pay over half a million dollars in property taxes.”
The lawsuit seeks a judgment declaring that the Peninsula Township zoning ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution and asks that the court prevent the township from enforcing the ordinance while the case is pending. They are also seeking monetary damages for “reasonable costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in bringing this action.”
The wineries collectively filing the lawsuit include 2 Lads Winery, Bowers Harbor Vineyard & Winery, Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery, Chateau Grand Traverse, Chateau Chantal, Peninsula Cellars, Hawthorne Vineyards, Bonobo Winery, Tabone Vineyards, Black Star Farms and Mari Vineyard. All but Bonobo are part of the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula Association (WOMP), a Michigan non-profit corporation comprised of member wineries. However, they recently re-branded their website as the Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail.
The wineries are represented by attorneys at the Grand Rapids office of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC.
Sound off in the comments section below. Do you think the wineries have a case in asking for fewer restrictions in the ordinance? Or would you like to see the current restrictions maintained?