King County is on the cusp of providing legal clarity to both farmers and alcohol producers in the county after years of uncertainty, but few seem to be happy with the ordinance.
For years, county code surrounding where wineries, breweries, distillers and especially taprooms could set up in unincorporated areas was often left unenforced. This allowed alcohol producers to jump through hoops to get state alcohol permits and open businesses without the county raising objections.
But around 2014, neighbors of several businesses located in unincorporated King County, just outside of Woodinville’s wine district, started filing complaints. These complaints centered on the retail portions of several alcohol producers. In particular, some neighbors say the taprooms are functioning more as bars than outlets for wineries, which as a commercial use is prohibited on rural zoned land.
Businesses contended that they had operated for years at their locations without the county hassling them, and that an outdated code made it difficult or impossible to comply. Code enforcement complaints were filed, and eventually King County Executive Dow Constantine signed a settlement agreement. The county would begin drafting new ordinances and the 20 wineries in violation of county code could stay open until new rules were created.
Five years and multiple drafts later, the King County Council is poised to vote Dec. 4 on a new ordinance. The process has consistently netted packed council chambers when it is discussed, with representatives of wineries, farmers and neighbors all sides remaining unhappy with the ordinance.
The farmers worry that allowing the businesses to stay in rural or agricultural buffers could lead to land speculation and price them out of the market. The neighbors are worried about traffic, and the alcohol producers are worried about having to shut down or relocate.
Serena Glover is a member of Friends of Sammamish Valley, one of the organizations that wants to see the non-compliant alcohol producers relocated.
“What the code needs to do is to make sure that those people can’t continue to operate drinking establishments and call themselves wineries,” she said.
County code currently doesn’t allow for bars, tasting rooms or taprooms in rural-zoned areas. Glover said she would like the county to enforce that instead of change the regulations. She argued many of the wineries, breweries and distilleries in Sammamish Valley were functioning more like taprooms and bars than production facilities.
“If the county proceeds to reward violators that have been clearly violating the code and if the county proceeds to not only reward them but to open up further land to commercial developments… it’s just going to encourage more speculators,” she said.
Glover wouldn’t say whether her organization would sue the county if the ordinance was approved.
“I am certain that this will not be the end of this process, even if they vote in December,” Glover said.
For others like Tom Quigley, who is a founding member of the Sammamish Valley Alliance that advocates for local farms, the main issue is a lack of code enforcement from the county. King County Council member Claudi Balducci said during an Oct. 7 meeting of the Committee of the Whole that they would also be looking into hiring additional code enforcement staff. Quigley said he was worried the code enforcement would be more focused on bringing businesses into compliance.
“Rather than enforcing code, it’s, ‘well let’s change the code,’” he said.
But business owners say King County let them set up and operate in unincorporated parts of the county. Dane Scarimbolo and Dominique Torgerson run the Four Horsemen Brewery near Kent. The siblings said they received all the permits they thought they needed and began selling beer in 2015. But in November 2017, they said King County sent them a notice, telling them they were out of compliance with county code. The county also threatened to put a lien against their property.
Scarimbolo said that during the permitting process, county employees had verbally told them they were classified as a home occupation, and could legally operate in rural county. So the pair contacted their rural ombudsman in 2018, who lobbied the county to allow them to keep operating.
“This is real, we source our ingredients from Washington state, we brew onsite,” Scarimbolo said.
The county first argued they could only brew on site. After the pair pushed back, they were allowed to sell on site. But it took a hearing examiner’s decision last October to finally let them keep a tasting room on site, and they say they still haven’t received a change of use permit. If they don’t by the time the new ordinance comes into effect, they’re worried they won’t be grandfathered in and could be shut down again. They’re also worried about retaliation from the county.
Torgerson said the county’s winery study felt like it only took a handful of alcohol producers into account, focusing mostly on the Sammamish Valley. Already, she said several south county breweries have had to close or relocate.
“I think they just completely disregarded our breweries,” she said.
Torgerson said there was no need for a demonstration area, which would grandfather in alcohol businesses in the Sammamish Valley, if there was “reasonable code” to follow. They’re also not happy with the current iteration of the ordinance that could be voted on in December.
They’re not alone either. In October 2018, Sal Leone was the owner of a 1.5-acre property just outside of Woodinville on agriculture land. It has several taprooms, including one of each for his brewery, winery and distillery, which are located in other parts of the state. He said at the time he was hoping to fight to keep his businesses open, but by this September, he said he made the decision to sell the property.
“I bought this property five years ago and thinking that this would be resolved, and it’s gone on for five years, and you know with all the politics and all that, and I’m becoming an old guy, and I think this is a long-term struggle as to what’ll happen,” Leone said in an interview this month. “I’m sure there will be a lawsuit by somebody, by some side. It’ll be tied up in the courts, so I sold it to a person who is younger and has more time to deal with it because I’m trying to slow down.”
Leone was frustrated with people who were pushing against his businesses, and said taprooms from Washington state alcohol producers are agriculture businesses. But he put much of the blame on the way the county handled the process.
“I know that from my point of view, quite frankly, I’m just sick of the county. They don’t have the [courage] to do what’s right. At some point you just say forget it,” he said. “I think a lot of people are frustrated. We are all very, very frustrated at the process.”
The Oct. 7 meeting, much like every meeting on the winery ordinance, was packed with people opposed to it. Several amendments were approved, including exempting Vashon Island from the demonstration area and many restrictions, increasing the percentage of a building that can be used as a taproom from 15 to 30 percent of total space, among others.
County council member Balducci said she thinks inaction was making land speculation worse.
“We have reached the point where we need to move a decision,” she said. “I would not be in favor of this, I would not have proposed it, if I thought it was going to lead to a massive expansion of environmentally damaging activities.”
The amended ordinance was approved with only county council member Rod Dembowski voting against it.
Council member Kathy Lambert said the process was started following a study and recommendation from the county executive. Over the past years the county council has been trying to refine and tailor the ordinance to find compromise between the parties. She agreed it was time to move on and provide some sort of clarity in the code.
“We have tried to find a balance where people can go and have a place on the weekends not only in the industrial areas, but out in the rural areas to enjoy the beauty of the rural area, and find some balance and consistency in the rules,” Lambert said.