By John Burton
FREEHOLD — The county’s Agriculture Development Board may have deemed the controversial Little Silver winery proposal as a valid and permitted farm use, but the matter is still not a done deal.
The board on Wednesday evening voted 10-1 to approve an agriculture management plan put forth by Seven Bridges Winery, 640 Seven Bridges Road, Little Silver, and its owner Richard DeBlasi, who is seeking to use his property for a winery, tasting room and modest retail operation. The board’s decision bolsters DeBlasi and his attorney’s position that what is being proposed for the approximately 15 acres in Little Silver does meet the criteria and protection set forth in the state’s Right To Farm statute, a law intended to protect the state’s farms and agricultural businesses from unduly local government restrictions and nuisance actions.
The board’s decision, however, is not the final word on allowing the plan to move forward. With the approval, Seven Bridges Winery will now have to submit its site plan to the Monmouth County Planning Board for its take on the proposal, and to the county engineers to evaluate traffic considerations and other public health and safety concerns, as Seven Bridges Road is a county road, said Agriculture Development Board Chairman Joseph McCarthy.
The winery will also have to pass muster with the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) as well as meet local requirements for electric, plumbing and other necessary permits, McCarthy added.
There still remains another potential obstacle, as objectors – area residents and the Little Silver Borough Council – consider whether to appeal this decision.
Objectors have 45 days to formally seek to overturn the board’s decision by appealing it to the State Agriculture Development Committee, a division of the state’s Department of Agriculture.
Mayor Robert Neff Jr. said the borough council will consider whether to appeal. “We’ll still be involved in the county process to make sure our voices are heard there,” he said.
Tinton Falls lawyer Erik Anderson, who is representing three area residents, said he believes there is sufficient grounds to overturn the board’s decision, based on jurisdictional and other issues, and will discuss it with his clients.
DeBlasi has been using some of the property as a vineyard since 2003 – the site was used to grow hay prior to then – and has been receiving a farmland assessment since at least 1996.
But the problem for many area residents is the area is entirely residential and they believe that to place a substantial commercial use there would have an impact on their quality of life and possibly property values. Residents have also said there is safety issues as Seven Bridges Road is already a busy traffic thoroughfare and they fear having people leaving the winery after spending an afternoon drinking wine.
“That poses a real safety risk for our children,” said Kristen Blumberger, Breezy Point Road, explaining their street is a cul-de-sac, with about nine children younger than 5, who are often playing outside, riding bikes.
“I don’t know who monitors all this,” said Ruby Laufer, Paag Lane. “It’s incredibly disturbing to me.”
DeBlasi had approached the local governing body seeking a zoning change to permit the winery. The council never acted on his request, with council members acknowledging most of the comments they heard was in opposition. In reaction to the council’s inaction, DeBlasi sought to largely circumvent local control seeking the county and state approval.
“This is not a commercial zone,” Neff told the board. “This is an application that more properly belongs before the planning and zone board,” with local officials making the decision, he argued.
Despite all the concerns raised, there were those who voiced support, believing it would benefit the community.
“I’m all for it, because it’ll be beautiful,” said Dennis Donnelly, a 30-year resident. “I’d rather see this, well-landscaped property, than a bulldozer coming in,” leveling it for future condos, he said.