By John Burton
FREEHOLD – Monmouth County Agricultural Board has again voted to approve a controversial winery proposed for Little Silver.
During the board’s Tuesday night meeting, it overwhelmingly reaffirmed its October ruling that the winery, proposed for 640 Seven Bridges Road, meets criteria as a valid agricultural use under the state’s Right To Farm Act.
Attorneys representing Little Silver Borough Council and some area residents, who object to the proposal, are considering whether to appeal the decision to state officials.
Four months ago, the board four months ago rendered the same ruling, supporting the proposal by Seven Bridges Winery, LLC, and its principal, Richard DeBlasi, to establish the winery, tasting room and small retail operation on portions of the 15-acre site.
The state Agriculture Development Committee then said the county board failed to obtain sufficient verification that DeBlasi’s site, which had had been used to grow grapes, was an income-generating agricultural site, a required provision of the state Right To Farm Act. The state asked county officials to re-evaluate their ruling.
“We’re in a position of interpreting language that is ambiguous,” said county board chairman Joseph McCarthy, referring to the statute.
Patrick Accisano, DeBlasi’s attorney, again argued his client had maintained a long-standing farmland tax assessment on the site and had been growing and selling hay, before turning to growing grapes in 2002.
Under the farm act, owners have to show they earn at least $2,500 a year to qualify. Accisano said that was true for most of the time but that DeBlasi did not meet that standard when he initially tried but failed to grow grapes there for about three years. Accisano added that the state makes provisions for that, allowing time for a site to become viable when establishing a new crop.
The proposal has been met with considerable opposition from area residents and the Little Silver Borough Council. The argument is that a retail operation would be disruptive in terms of traffic and noise for an area zoned for residential use. The governing body has maintained the decision should be made on the local level, not by county or state officials.
Seven Bridges Winery will now have to submit its site plan to the county planning board and county engineers for traffic studies and public safety considerations and is still subject to local requirements and permits.
Erik Anderson, who represents three homeowners, said he believes there remain grounds to appeal the decision to the state agriculture committee. He and Joseph Clark, representing the borough council, said they would discuss a possible appeal with their clients.