County, wine industry approaching smoother waters

Despite growing pains, the wine industry in Clark County is maturing and expanding

A learning experience. That is how both vineyard/winery owners and county officials seem to view the past few years, as they sought solutions that would encourage the development of wineries in the county while mitigating impacts to neighboring parcels. And, like many learning experiences, it was sometimes fraught with mistakes, misunderstandings and frustration. But Marty Snell, Clark County community development director, expects all of the county’s wineries (about 22 of them) to be completely permitted and in compliance with county codes and ordinances by November 14 – a fact that County Commissioner David Madore called a “great success.”

It wasn’t an easy road. And not everyone had the same rules.

WineIndClarkCnty-4“Established vineyards in the county had to pay permit fees, and were held to more stringent regulations than currently exist,” said Dan Andersen, owner of Three Brothers Vineyard and Winery in Ridgefield. “This has caused some heartache, but there are no hard feelings.”

Andersen was referring to the fact that wineries that began the permitting process before the commissioners established a permitting fee waiver last June paid fees, while those that delayed, or who are newcomers to the industry, did not. Also, the original winery ordinance, enacted a couple years ago, was revised last September – again changing the rules of the game.

“We are in absolute compliance with every possible agency the county has, and it took a lot money to do it,” said Andersen.

Snell admitted that “if I had to pay earlier, and some competitors did not have to pay, I’m not sure I’d be happy with that. [The earlier wineries] were unfortunate victims of timing.”

In addition, it has taken time for county officials to understand the needs of the industry, and for winery owners to understand what the county wants.

“There was a lot of confusion in the beginning about what we needed to do, because every property is different,” said Michele Bloomquist, owner of Heisen House Vineyards in Battle Ground. “Some have wells and some don’t, some serve food, some don’t, some have different zoning.”

Bloomquist also gave an example of how winery owners can help educate the county about using common sense, instead of blindly applying rules. She explained that the building she uses as a small tasting room has a separate septic system, and she was planning to hook up a dishwasher to that system, expecting about eight gallons of effluence per week. The Public Health Department, she said, told her she needed to consult a septic designer, who proposed a $16,000 commercial system. After some discussion, however, the department agreed that the existing system is adequate for washing, but not if she added bathrooms. Then she proposed installing a holding tank that gets pumped periodically – installation of the tank would cost only about $5,000. She reported that the health department said no at first, but after further discussion, during which she pointed out that county and state parks use similar holding tanks, the department agreed to the holding tank idea.

“Other wineries that already put in the expensive septic system – had they known, they would have done something different and had $11,000 to put into their business,” said Bloomquist.

But, countered Snell, “When you have tasting rooms and events, inviting the public in, then building codes, fire codes and public health codes kick in.”

Another area of conflict between the county, winery owners and neighboring property owners has centered around the noise associated with events held at wineries. Several sections of last year’s ordinance revision address “event management plans,” the allowed number of events per year, attendance and allowed noise levels.

Jeremy Brown, who owns Battle Ground-based Rusty Grape Vineyard, said his winery was unfairly singled out as the “poster child for what the county thought they needed the ordinance for,” and was considered the “black sheep of the industry.” Brown’s winery used to hold weddings and a concert series, which were “a bit too loud for the neighbors.” To accommodate these neighbors and comply with the revised ordinance, Brown said Rusty Grape “faded out the weddings” and began serving pizza as a new revenue stream.

“I’d like to change the county’s perception of what’s happening up here,” said Brown.

In the last year, Brown said, Rusty Grape has been subject to three health department complaints and several liquor control board complaints – complaints that Brown stated were without cause. He said that when he asked the county commissioners about his situation, they replied that it was a “complaint-driven system,” but Brown wonders if anyone investigates whether a complaint “has merit.”

“We suffered a great hit, and are now looking at a solid three years of harassment from a neighbor. What happened to our rights? If people are eating pizza and drinking wine indoors, what is the issue?” asked Brown, who also stated that the Clark County ordinance “seems to be the most restrictive sound law for wineries in the state.”

Other winery owners, however, do not seem concerned about the event aspects of the ordinance. Walter Houser, owner of Bethany Vineyards in Ridgefield, said “we have events and it is not hard to meet the criteria.”

Bloomquist expressed other concerns. “My fear is that if it is more expensive to open a winery here than opening it elsewhere, it might stall the industry.”
She stated that she knows at least five people who wanted to start a winery but are now reconsidering.

“It’s a balancing act of meeting public safety and health requirements without it being so expensive that Clark County can’t be competitive,” said Bloomquist. “We have the same climate as the Willamette Valley, and the proximity to a metro area. All the elements of a thriving wine industry are here, but the regulatory environment is holding it back.”

“I have no problem with writing an ordinance – everything needs guidelines,” said Brown. “Some folks just seem to make a big deal out of nothing. Everywhere else it’s a booming industry.”

Despite the level of concern on both sides of the issue, optimism exists about the future.

“I think things are getting better,” said Bloomquist “We had growing pains, but the process will smooth out. Each one of us going through it will fine tune it so it is more plug and play. I hope that the county will continue to make the process easier and affordable so that the wine industry will continue to grow in Clark County.”

Houser, who opened his vineyard in 2002, said, “I think the industry will get much larger in the next ten years.” Bloomquist agreed, projecting 50 licensed wineries in the county by 2025. Brown had similar sentiments, stating that “moving forward it will be a healthy industry.”

The commissioners appear to be on the same page – Madore said, “We want to do whatever we can to help this new private enterprise to prosper in Clark County. We want to make sure that the business prospers, but the neighbors’ property rights are protected.”

“We have this experience behind us, so moving forward it should be a smooth process,” said Snell. “People know what the rules are and know what they need to do.”

Winery industry has ripple effect

Michele Bloomquist, owner of Heisen House Vineyards in Battle Ground, said that the wine industry “creates a spin-off economy” through its relationship to tourism. People attracted to the area’s wineries will also patronize hotels, antique shops, gas stations, restaurants and more. She stated that Yamhill County in Oregon saw $20 million in revenue from wine last year, and $70 million in agri-tourism.

“That money could go a long way – there are taxes collected on all of those sales,” said Bloomquist. “It’s a renewable, increasing, expanding revenue stream.”

However, she said Clark County’s regulatory environment is harming the county’s prospects. She stated that in the recent down economy, Washington’s wine industry grew by 800 percent, but Clark County wasn’t on the list of Washington counties enjoying that growth.

“Why weren’t we on that list?” asked Bloomquist. “We should have been.”

Here are some statistics from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers that illustrate the potential positive economic impact of the wine industry (based on 2011 figures within the state):

Value of grape crop/vineyard revenue:

$166.4 million
Wages paid: $1.17 billion
Retail value of Washington wine:
$1.47 billion
Winery revenue:
$1 billion
Wine-related tourism expenditures:
$1.06 billion
State & local taxes paid: $237.7 million
Federal taxes paid: $304.8 million
Source: http://www.wawgg.org/files/documents/2012_Economic_Impact_WA_Wine-Grapes.pdf

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.