By John Burton
FREEHOLD – The Seven Bridges Road property owner seeking to establish a winery on his property and area residents opposed the plan – plus lawyers for both sides – had a chance to square off Wednesday night before a Monmouth County board that could have a decisive say on the plan.
The Monmouth County Agriculture Development Board heard from Richard DeBlasi, who owns the 640 Seven Bridges Road property where he would like to establish and operate a winery, tasting room and on-site wine market, and his professionals offering support for the plan. They stressed that the proposed operation would be modest in scope and the traffic generated would not impact the residential area, as Seven Bridges Road is already a considerably high-volume thoroughfare.
The agriculture board has continued the hearing on the application to its Oct. 2 meeting. The session will include public comment and closing argument from lawyers and possibly board members’ deliberation and vote.
During Wednesday night’s session, Patrick Accisano, the attorney representing DeBlasi’s Seven Bridges Winery, argued that the proposed use is permitted under the state’s Right to Farm Act, despite the objections expressed by the local governing body and area residents.
Area residents have been voicing their concern about the proposal, fearful of a substantial commercial enterprise in an area zoned for residential use. They believe it would cause excessive traffic, noise and adversely impact their overall quality of life.
Previously, the Little Silver Borough Council listened to arguments pro and con and decided not to act on DeBlasi’s request to change the zoning to permit a winery.
Councilman Dane Mihlon told board members that area residents asked him to voice their concerns. He said he and residents are fearful that a winery would generate a lot of traffic much like other area farm markets and Sickles, in particular, which he said generates considerable traffic.
Seven Bridges Winery, having failed to sway local officials to permit the use, applied for county and state approval of its agricultural management plan, under the Right to Farm Act. That legislation was intended to protect farmers from unfair local constraints and nuisance actions.
Local officials feared this was an attempt to circumvent local control and approval.
Local officials have said they worried this could open the door for the location to hold larger events, such as festivals, parties and weddings. However, Accisano has dismissed those concerns, insisting that is not under consideration.
“I don’t think the right to farm equals the right to retail,” Mihlon said.
Little Silver Borough Attorney Christopher Ackerman also argued DeBlasi doesn’t qualify for protection under the legislation. The bill has been amended in recent years to protect only farms that are a permitted use in the zone or generate a certain level of income as a commercial farm.
“The applicant has failed to meet that burden,” Ackerman said.
“It’s not an isolated estate up in the hills,” but surrounded by homes and a school in the vicinity, argued lawyer Eric Anderson, representing a neighbor opposed to this. “You have to look at the totality of the enterprise.”
DeBlasi has owned the approximately 16.6 acres for years and has grown grapes on 5 of those acres for about the last 10 years with the property assessed as farmland. He currently holds state and federal approvals to make and store wine on site, but can’t bottle or sell it.