It’s an early Sunday morning in March. As I look through the doorway of our historic barn, I see beyond the strip of pasture, across the road, to the hillside of carefully tended grapes, the hill topped by a winery. Above this, the sun, brilliant, shining above all and light reflecting off the wings of flying birds. So serene, the only sounds are birds chirping, and an occasional car passing by. So grateful I am to live in such a beautiful place and enjoy such a moment.
As my thoughts drift to the recent WOMP lawsuit (Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula), I have to wonder, what will the view be five, ten, or twenty years from now? Will the vineyard still be there? Or will it be cleared, the hillside studded with houses or short-term rentals?
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There is a highway that separates the farm from the winery. But in the recent months, there is something far more that separates us. That is the WOMP lawsuit – Case No. 20-cv-01008, first filed on October 21, 2020, then amended January 4, 2021, by Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula Association and all 11 Peninsula wineries, against Peninsula Township in federal court.
This “autoimmune” attack on our Township government causes me great concern.
I am part of a farm family that still farms the land their forefathers did in the late 1800’s. Over time, our farm expanded, and we take care of others’ farms, as well. We continue to grow cherries and apples, and in this generation, we’ve tended vineyards and sell grapes to local wineries.
Overall, as farmers, we’ve enjoyed a cooperative atmosphere with the wineries we deal with. We’ve appreciated their support of local non-profits. We know people who earn their livelihood by working for the wineries. And when our out-of-town visitors arrive, they are thrilled when we take them to a local winery.
A Perplexing Development
Why this lawsuit by WOMP?
“WOMP’s purpose is to protect and promote the Old Mission Peninsula wine industry.” (PLAINTIFF’S FIRST AMENDED COMPLAINT, page 6, item 39)
By definition, WOMP does not claim to be representing community interests, they are only interested in the wineries’ benefit. I understand WOMP claims its members’ constitutional rights have been violated and their businesses have suffered irreparable harm due to Peninsula Township ordinances.
Wait a minute – aren’t these essentially the same ordinances that the establishment of wineries were based on years ago?
It was a different time, when this narrow strip of land between the bays was determined to be the perfect microclimate to grow grapes for world-class premium wines. Visionary entrepreneurs sought the perfect sites for their vineyards and wineries, which were allowed within agricultural zoning.
Certainly, the romance of growing wine grapes doesn’t pay the bills. Over the years, there have been changes in the business climate since the original ordinances were adopted. Competition among wineries has increased, from 64 Michigan wineries in 2009, rising to 150 in 2019.1 Vineyards are expensive – they occupy acres of valuable land, are labor intensive, and the crop is subject to the forces of nature.
There is more money cultivating a winery as an event center. For example, hosting weddings/receptions. In other locales, even rustic barns with improvements can rent for $6,000 – $12,000 per event.2 How much more can be charged in a facility that offers food, drink and lodging? If the community tolerates the resulting additional traffic, noise, and extended hours of operation, how many more different kinds of events can be scheduled?
Remember “Agritourism”? The vineyard in association with the winery was a draw for visitors. And now? It appears the business model is changing – more winery, less agriculture.
“These monies that Plaintiffs are forced to spend on fruit from local farmers could be spent in other areas of the businesses or to purchase fruit from farmers outside of Peninsula Township, or Michigan.” (PLAINTIFF’S FIRST AMENDED COMPLAINT, page 26, item 211)
It appears the demand for wine remains good, but the commitment to support the local agricultural community via the Township ordinance is now an undesirable burden. Is this a prelude to reducing winery-owned vineyard acreage? Perhaps leading to wineries without vineyards?
By initiating the lawsuit against Peninsula Township, WOMP has chosen confrontation over negotiation through the zoning process. Therefore, the Township needs to be proactive and anticipate the increasing number of wineries, intensity of use, and impact on the community.
Topics of Concern:
1) Noise. Outdoor events are LOUD. Sound respects no property lines. Sound travel is influenced by topography, bodies of water, temperature and distance. I have experienced this on more than one occasion. With amplified music being played at the winery, the sound traveled down a hill, across the road, along the side of a house, and across my driveway to the porch where I sat. It was still so loud I could name the titles of the music played.
An entertainment venue should not impose its activities upon its neighbors. The Township needs to establish a quantifiable way to measure sound trespass, set a limit, and exercise a code of enforcement, effective 24 hours a day. Imagine if your home were sandwiched in between two or more wineries broadcasting music at the same time! Ideally, amplified music and/or voice should be restricted to be within an enclosed building.
2) Protecting Our Parks and Other Township Properties. Our parks should not become exclusive staging areas for winery tours or unregulated parking for off-site events. The sound ordinance must be enforced to control amplified sound originating on and off Township properties, as well.
3) Winery Ordinance. We need to address the exclusive rights granted to wineries by the winery ordinance. Why retain it as a special class? How about cideries and breweries? The Peninsula has had a maraschino cherry processing plant for decades. They are long time buyers of local light sweet cherries. Shouldn’t they be allowed to serve alcoholic drinks garnished with the traditional maraschino cherry?
4) Special Uses. What happens if a winery no longer has a vineyard or ceases to exist? The buildings and infrastructure are already there. Do the special uses continue? Has the zoning ordinance been thwarted?
5) Consistent Enforcement of Ordinances by the Township. We cannot rely on a piecemeal series of complaints from residents alone, often ignored and forgotten.
6) Traffic. Traffic counts should be performed on a periodic basis to include the numbers and types of vehicles and times of day. Results can be used to discover trends and for planning uses.
7) Lighting. Exterior lighting limited per Township Ordinance should not increase or be changed for wineries.
8) PDR Properties. Determine whether a redefinition of a winery would affect the existing PDR properties (Purchase of Development Rights), allowing dwellings and additional development. The community has voted for millages to fund the PDR program to ensure these properties remain free from that development.
This situation is complicated and it will take time. It should not be rushed. It needs the shared perspectives from all of us to make a harmonious system. It is only natural the wineries would want to grow and thrive. It is only natural that we other residents, including farmers, retirees, and families, want to retain our quality of life and ensure our interests. After all, there are only three two-lane roads on and off the Peninsula – the Peninsula is almost an island.
Let’s work together in a constructive process to make sure everyone’s interests are heard, rather than prolong the process by battling it out in court or through private settlement.
1Michigan Agriculture, “A Toast to Michigan”, 2020 Edition, Vol. 7, pg. 36
2Successful Farming, “Getting Hitched on the Farm”, March 2021, pg. 62