Planning Commission recommends approval of ordinance amendment, permit
By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL - A Warren County herb farm owner planning to start the area's first microbrewery received overwhelming support Wednesday.
The Planning Commission held a public hearing on Billie and Arnold Clifton's request for a conditional-use permit to operate a microbrewery and brewpub at Sunflower Cottage on Reliance Road. About a half-dozen people, including neighbors, spoke in support of the Cliftons' endeavor and the proposed changes to the county ordinance that would be needed.
In separate actions the commission voted 5-0 to forward both items to the Board of Supervisors with a recommendation that it approve the permit request and ordinance amendment.
"I think this is a great opportunity for the community," said commission Chairman Mark Bower. "Tourism is so powerful and this really helps bond people back to the community, so I certainly support this and I think it's a great opportunity for a new and growing industry which will be well accepted in the community."
Commission member C. Douglas Rosen noted that the county has had wineries for years but said he is glad to see the locality "take the forefront" by allowing a microbrewery.
The county does not currently allow microbreweries or brewpubs on property zoned for agricultural use.
Planning Director Taryn Logan told the board that staff researched how other localities address microbreweries and brewpubs. They then crafted the draft of the ordinance for consideration that includes regulations and requirements for both enterprises. The ordinance requires that at least 5 percent of the hops used in a microbrewery must come from the farm where the operation is established.
The ordinance as proposed limits a brewpub to 50 seats and a microbrewery to 10 seats. The county's farm winery ordinance adopted several years ago does not allow such a business to include restaurant facilities, according to Logan. The ordinance limits farm wineries to serving cheese and crackers.
"We knew that was something that would be raised with the brewery ordinance now allowing restaurants," Logan said.
Assistant County Attorney Dan Whitten told the commission that the microbrewery would be similar to a bar with a few spaces for patrons while the brewpub operates as a restaurant with tables and seats.
Commission Chairman Mark Bower noted the issue of allowed operations on wineries has sparked debate. Future applicants may challenge some of the requirements of the ordinance if approved, but the county has the permit application process for this, Bower added.
"Certainly in years gone by there has been a lot of dialog about what you can do with farm wineries particularly and not everybody has agreed on what is by right and what is by conditional-use permit," Bower said. "There may be as we go forward somebody else that applies that thinks a farm microbrewery, because it's a farm, they can put it in whatever kind of building and perhaps they're exempt from any requirements for inspection, seating, insurance, you name it 'cause it's a farm and it's all done in the name of the farm."
The Cliftons' plans attracted Edwin Wright, owner of Dryer Farm in Browntown, to the meeting to pose questions. Wright told the commission he intends to apply later in the year for a winery license and permit to operate a brewery. Wright asked what differences exist between a brewery and a microbrewery for licensing purposes, noting that the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control separates brewery licenses but does not include a subcategory for microbrewery.
Wright also asked whether the definition under consideration for a brewpub or brewery prohibit on-premises restaurants in the same way as the code does for a farm winery, or if a brewpub is considered different. He also asked for clarification on the 50-seat limit.
Dan J. Murray Jr., supervisor for the North River District, and his wife spoke in support of the Cliftons and their plan. The Murrays also live near Sunflower Cottage off Reliance Road.
"They're excellent people," the supervisor said. "Their operation is beyond reproach. I would love to see hops grown on Reliance Road rather than a subdivision that would destroy the aesthetics of the area. What they bring to us is a business, is taxes, is employment, everything that this county needs and I will support that 100 percent in their endeavor and I hope you do the same."
Linda Allen of Front Royal told the board that she and others have talked about bringing a brewery downtown. Allen, a patron of Sunflower Cottage, spoke highly of the business.
"Everything they do is a positive contribution to the community and they're very active in the community," Allen said. "I guess the real question is the economic value of this particular endeavor and I certainly, since some of us had the same idea, would endorse it as a great asset to the county, a way to draw residents and tourists alike to that area of [U.S.] 522 and serve the purposes of increasing revenue."
The ordinance as proposed and the conditional-use permit request come before the Board of Supervisors at its second meeting in February.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or email@example.com