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Tuesday, Jun. 02, 2009

Washington's Benton County eases restrictions on opening wineries

It justgot a little easier to open a winery in rural Benton County.

Previously, 80 percent of the land where a winery was sited had to be planted in commercial grape-producing vineyards in certain unincorporated areas of the county.

That changed Monday when the county commissioners modified an ordinance to allow wineries to operate on land with or without adjacent commercial vineyards.

The change applies to vineyards on plots designated as agricultural land for the long term.

"It's land you want to continue to keep agricultural," said Benton County Planning Director Mike Shuttleworth.

County officials aren't sure if the change will lead to more wineries opening in rural Benton County, but several said the process to open a winery is now less restrictive.

"I believe, now, that Benton County is more business-friendly in the permitting process," Commissioner Max Benitz Jr. said.

After the original ordinance passed in 2007, Benitz said winery openings in rural Benton County ceased.

"We have not had a winery built in rural Benton County since that ordinance passed," he said.

Some potential winery operators, Benitz said, gave up on opening a winery in rural Benton County because of the ordinance.

"There had been some previous applicants that had looked," he said. "I hope they come back."

Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Industrial Development Council, said TRIDEC agribusiness committee members worked with the county to modify the ordinance.

"It was restrictive to some of the wine development we've been seeing in the county," he said.

Adrian said TRIDEC and the county wanted an ordinance that prevented unfettered growth, but allowed wineries to open without "unnecessary regulations."

"You want to have a happy balance," he said.

Neither Benitz nor Adrian expect a sharp increase in winery openings in rural Benton County with the change. Shuttleworth agreed.

"I don't know if we've really projected that or not," he said.

After the commissioners approved the amendment 2-0 -- Commissioner Jim Beaver was absent -- Shuttleworth said the decision needs to withstand a 60-day appeal process. If no appeals are filed, he said wineries in rural Benton County can begin operating without any commercial vineyards on their property.

The ordinance also applies to breweries, Shuttleworth said. Previously, breweries needed to have 80 percent of the land they occupied planted in hops or wheat.

So far, there are no breweries in rural Benton County.