Making a Wine-Friendly County

Clark County, Wash., adopts policies to help small businesses thrive

by Peter Mitham
Clark County events
Rusty Grape Vineyard in Battle Ground, Wash., has four festivals per year, including a grape-stomping competition.
Vancouver, Wash. -- A wine boom prompted Clark County commissioners to adopt an ordinance yesterday regulating what local wineries do in rural areas outside Vancouver, Wash. Clark County is a state-designated growth management area; the county seat Vancouver is part of the urban metro area that includes Portland, Ore., on the south bank of the Columbia River.

Vineyards are rare, but the county is home to approximately a dozen wineries, and another six are in the planning stages. County commissioners saw a need to adopt regulations governing the sector’s operations. The state’s growth management regulations seek to limit urban sprawl, and economic activities must be consistent with those goals. The challenge is not an unfamiliar one in the Pacific Northwest; a year ago, Lane County, Ore., faced push-back from wineries regarding a special events license, and Washington state has seen a steady push for liberalization of policies governing winery events (see “Oregon Wineries Face Event Restrictions,” Wines & Vines headline, Sept. 17, 2009).

Washington state’s Growth Management Act typically ensures a clear divide between urban and rural areas, but Clark County economic development manager Kelly Sills said wineries blur the distinction between the two. “They’re such a hybrid of different classifications. You have agriculture; you have what in essence is food processing in the manufacture of the wine; you have special events usually associated with the wineries, you have tourism,” he said. “Generally speaking, things like events and retail activities and manufacturing activities are typically concentrated more in the urban area.”

With properties such as 100-case Bethany Vineyards, Ridgefield, hosting several hundred people at some events, local officials saw a need to define acceptable activities at wineries in unincorporated areas of the county.

“We want folks to be good neighbors to each other, and where (wineries) have impacts that may be above and beyond what folks consider in keeping with rural character we put these in place,” Marty Snell, community development director for the Clark County Board of Commissioners, told Wines & Vines in advance of last night’s decision.

While all businesses are expected to comply with public health regulations and municipal zoning requirements, and wineries and tasting rooms receive licenses from the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the new ordinance spells out the specific requirements for wineries. Snell said the county has typically circulated new winery and tasting room applications being considered by state liquor control authorities to relevant county departments, including the sheriff, public health and community development.

“What we would find at times would be no land use approval or building permit. We would know the concern, and then the liquor control board would not issue a liquor license,” Snell said. The new process aims to clarify the requirements wineries and tasting rooms face, reducing delays while explaining the rules.

Liberal limits

While some counties don’t have the same Growth Management Act requirements as Clark County, Snell noted that Walla Walla County ordinances regulate similar aspects of wineries’ operations. “We looked at what they had on their books, and they had similar activities they were regulating with tasting rooms and events,” Snell said. “We have some of the more liberal provisions.”

Indeed, wineries without tasting rooms or events are exempt from review. Gatherings of less than 150 people are not deemed to be events. And wineries to which the county grants a tasting room permit (cost: $228, vs. more than $300 for its standard event license) may have as many as 50 events per year. Of these, 42 may host 500 people, while up to eight may have a maximum of 1,500 people.

Jeremy Brown of four-year-old Rusty Grape Vineyard in Battle Ground, Wash., told Wines & Vines that the ordinance as passed was an improvement over more restrictive drafts that were initially proposed and reflected significant consultation with local wineries. While no one likes regulation, he said the current ordinance establishes a level playing field.

“It’s overall a positive thing. It seems like they were really trying to make it work for everybody,” he said. “We had a lot of unanswered questions. Now we have the same set of rules for everyone.” Brown’s own winery produces 1,500 cases per year, including some from local Pinot Noir grapes, and makes use of social media to promote a regular calendar of events running from outdoor movies during the summer to small, intimate concerts indoors during winter. It also has four festivals every year, including a grape-stomping competition.

The majority of these events draw less than 150 people, and none come near 1,500 attendees, but they’re integral to the Rusty Grape’s business plan. “Most people have a little bit of music and a little bit of cheese and wine tastings,” Brown said. “You can’t just be a farmer anymore and have a little shack and have people come in.”
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