Longtime Old Mission Peninsula resident and farmer Barb Wunsch, along with 19 other OMP farmers, weighs in on the importance of a level playing field between farmers and wineries in the following letter to the Peninsula Township Board and Planning Commission. This letter is included in the packet for the upcoming Township Board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 at 7 p.m. at the Township Hall. See the full agenda and packet on the Township’s website here.
To the Peninsula Township Board and Planning Commission:
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We the undersigned represent a majority of the remaining farmland in Peninsula Township. It is fair to say that we also represent the entire spectrum of opinions related to future development and growth on the Old Mission Peninsula, which has placed us at odds with each other for decades, and in some cases for generations.
The common thread between each of our farms is that we are significant landowners and land managers in Peninsula Township who have not developed wineries on our farms. We are mostly multigenerational farmers, and some of us have advocated for farmland preservation and the strict limitation of development in the township, while others have championed free market principles and a robust view of property rights.
While our attitudes toward development vary, we all place value on the maintenance of working lands and a level playing field on which we can continue the legacy of our businesses into the future. We disagree on many of the issues facing our township, but we are petitioning together today to ensure that our due process and equal protection rights as non-winery farm owners are protected and to try to chart a path forward that will ensure that our farms have a fair opportunity to succeed and flourish in the rapidly evolving policy and cultural environments of Peninsula Township.
Over the course of the past five decades, our farms have remained committed to a large degree to production agriculture, and we have managed the ups and downs of weather and market cycles to remain competitive in the changing agricultural economy of Peninsula Township. As major landowners, we have followed the WOMP (Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula) vs. Peninsula Township lawsuit closely, and feel that it is necessary at this point to appeal for a number of the revenue-generating and value-added opportunities that have been afforded to our friends and neighbors in the wine industry to be extended to us as well.
These options have historically been extended to wineries but prohibited on the traditional tree fruit farms that still make up a majority of the township’s farmland. Non-winery farms are currently incredibly shut out of most direct market and agritourism opportunities — essentially, we are allowed only a 150-square-foot roadside stand to sell local produce, while our neighbors in the wine industry are able to lodge overnight guests, sell small plates, host a variety of events, ship a majority of their wine product into the township from the West Coast, and sell ancillary products from their retail venues.
It is unreasonable to expect non-winery farmers to provide a service to the broader community in terms of maintenance of rural character, viewsheds and open spaces while allowing a separate category of businesses on agriculturally-zoned land to capitalize on these value-added opportunities. This disparity has been corrosive to the orchard business in Peninsula Township, and has foreclosed succession opportunities for many of our family farms.
It is unreasonable for the township to force us to abandon crops and production methodologies that have worked for us for decades and build wineries in order to capitalize on business opportunities that the township has decided can rightly be categorized as agriculture, and which the market has priced into the value of local farmland.
As a group, we neither criticize nor support the property rights that have been extended to winery owners, but due to the probability that these rights may soon be dramatically expanded, we must request that the same rights be extended to us, regardless of whether we choose to build a winery or not.
While there are many excellent farmers in the township, the vast discrepancy between the 150-square-foot roadside stand afforded to tree fruit and truck farmers and the multiple retail and service channels currently permitted to wineries creates a dramatically lopsided playing field. A further expansion of winery rights without respect for our rights will lead to a scenario in which most of us will either be forced to develop our own wineries or sell out to winery developers over time.
We would argue that this scenario is not inevitable, but rather a logical and predictable outcome of a policy environment in which non-winery farmers face a restrictive policy environment while wineries are provided a much more comprehensive set of property rights within their operations.
If the wineries win their lawsuit or achieve concessions from the township, the competitive landscape of agricultural lands in Peninsula Township will be further shifted to our disadvantage, and we would respectfully submit that the following activities should be extended to our operations by right with no greater acreage or lot coverage restrictions than are required of winery chateaus currently or as policies change in the future.
In addition, we would request that any future property rights that are extended to wineries within the bundle of agricultural property rights also be extended to non-winery owners on agriculturally-zoned land.
Lodging is considered to be an agricultural use within the bundle of property rights extended to winery chateaus. Given the increased interest in farmstays and agritourism in our region, we would request that lodging options be expanded for agricultural producers not involved in the wine industry.
At a minimum, we would request as a use by right short-term rental opportunities for the traditional second house/guest house that exists on many of our farms, as well as seasonal farmstay opportunities for our farm labor housing when it is not being utilized by full-time farm employees.
In addition to balancing a competitive landscape that is shifting rapidly in favor of winery chateaus, a use by right short-term rental category for legacy and farm labor housing buildings would increase the quality of aging and/or seasonally utilized on-farm housing. This would both improve the aesthetic appeal of secondary and legacy housing units on larger farms, as well as ensure better quality housing options for the seasonal workforce on whom our township farmers and vintners rely.
We are open to ordinance language that would create some guardrails around use by right lodging on our farms, but the existing winery chateau and B&B special use permits (SUP) have not been effective at creating new revenue-generating channels for working farms on the Peninsula, as evidenced by the fact that none of our farms currently operate these types of ventures.
Additionally, we would request that SUP lodging for winery chateaus be removed from the winery chateau ordinance and opened up to all agricultural producers without regard for their involvement in wine production and/or sales.
The plaintiffs in the WOMP lawsuit also assert that private events including weddings are an agricultural use. The township has consistently pushed back against the idea of allowing wedding barns or other event uses of legacy structures on OMP farms without wineries. Many of the working farms in the township include legacy buildings that create historical and aesthetic value for the township, but that do not have significant economic value to current farming operations.
We would propose either a use by right or simple SUP process to allow these structures and/or new structures to be used to host weddings and other events if this right is maintained or expanded for wine businesses. If events and event spaces are an agricultural use for wineries, they should be an agricultural use for all farms that meet the acreage and lot coverage requirements for wineries allowed to conduct these activities.
Food service is currently allowed on a limited basis within wineries without regard for the origin of food products (small plates). For farms and farmstands, food service options are very restrictive, and require that farmers use exclusively or primarily ingredients sourced from their own land, sold through the 150-square-foot farmstand.
From our understanding, the winery lawsuit seeks to allow standalone restaurants on winery properties without regard for the origin of the ingredients. The current state is an absurd and unjust discrepancy, and a future in which wineries are allowed to operate one restaurant per 50-acre parcel with an SUP or one restaurant per 20-acre parcel as a use by right, while producers of other crops are excluded from doing the same will only deepen the imbalance.
We would request that if wineries are permitted enhanced or unlimited restaurant/food service rights, that the same concessions be made to non-winery farms that will place our operations on a level playing field with wineries. If orchardists must compete for scarce farmland resources with restaurant developers, our industry will have limited potential for future survival, whereas if we are able to partner with restauranteurs in joint ag/restaurant ventures, local farm businesses will be better able to survive in the new regulatory environment.
We would propose that our food and beverage options be no more limited than those of wineries (i.e. identical requirements for food service, alcohol sales, and hours of operation). We understand that restaurant developments could be more complex than lodging or events, and could foresee a simplified SUP process to designate a portion of our farms for restaurant use and a portion for agricultural use.
Peninsula Township currently makes it easier to build a small winery than to build an indoor market or a temporary tented market to sell farm produce. We would request that the township allow as a use by right the construction of farm markets of a reasonable size, as well as the use of temporary structures such as tents for the sales of locally-grown farm products, with restrictions on merchandising that are no more restrictive than those faced by winery tasting rooms.
Open Space, Working Lands, and Clustering
While we have different philosophies regarding the extent to which development ought to be allowed in Peninsula Township, we are all actively engaged in agriculture and place value on the future availability and optimization of Peninsula Township farmland.
Therefore, we would encourage the township when seeking new accommodations both for our businesses and to placate WOMP to explore policies that will balance the maintenance of working lands against the increased commercialization that the township has opted to allow on agriculturally-zoned parcels.
Surface parking lots and sprawl should be minimized to the extent possible, clustering and density of commercial agricultural activities should be encouraged, and commercial agricultural activities should be predicated on the preservation of working lands rather than creating a burdensome requirement for ornamental lot coverage that is only tangentially related to agritourism or commercial agricultural activities.
Barbara Wunsch, Adele Wunsch, Dean Johnson, Raul Gomez, Emma Smith, Joanne Westphal, Dave Edmondson, Nathan Lorenz, Annika Lorenz, John Lyon, Wendy Warren, Jeremiah Warren, Kathleen Seibold, Lew Seibold, Jeff Manigold, Lois Manigold, Bev Gore, Mike Gore, Steve Sobkowski, Nikki Sobkowski