By John Burton
LITTLE SILVER – The debate over a proposed commercial winery for a Seven Bridges Road property is moving outside the borough in early August when it will be considered by Monmouth County officials.
The county’s Agricultural Development Board is scheduled to hear the controversial proposal during its Aug. 7 meeting in Freehold. The plan, submitted by Seven Bridges Winery, LLC, seeks to operate a winery and retail outlet on the property overlooking the Shrewsbury River that the owner now uses as a vineyard and residence.
Seven Bridges Winery is asking the county board for its approval by asking it to issue a site-specific agricultural management practice plan.
The plan, submitted to the county board and filed on Feb. 9, is requesting “an exemption of municipal site plan review” with approval under the state statute commonly referred to as the Right to Farm Act.
Richard DeBlasi, the owner of the site, is “requesting the Monmouth CADB (County Agricultural Development Board) affirm that the sale of wine is an accepted farm market practice,” under state statute. “We also request that we can bottle (package) the agricultural output of the farm and establish a farm market facility (“Tasting Room”) without the expense and burden of municipal site plan review,” according to DeBlasi’s application.
When the application is heard, along with those issues, the board will likely discuss matters of ingress and egress at the site because Seven Bridges Road is a county road, said Harriet Honigfeld, program coordinator for the county’s Division of Planning.
DeBlasi has been growing grapes on about 5 acres of the approximately 15-acre tract he has owned for the past 10 years. A total of 12.7 of the acreage is assessed as farmland. Prior to DeBlasi owning it, the location was a farm that grew and harvested hay, according to the application.
DeBlasi did not return phone calls by press time seeking comment on his move to seek county approval for his plan.
His attorney, Patrick Accisano, Sea Girt, was unavailable for comment.
Previously, borough officials expressed concern that forwarding the application to the county was an attempt to circumvent borough approval on a plan that has stirred some controversy locally, with a number of area residents voicing opposition, fearing a commercial operation in a residential zone, and all that would entail – additional noise, traffic.
Residents who appeared before the borough council when the proposal was first floated “were uniformly against it,” Mayor Robert Neff Jr. said
The state statute, approved in 1983, is intended to protect farms and farmers from public and private nuisance actions and unduly restrictive municipal regulations, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Early in 2012, DeBlasi appeared before the borough council on two occasions to talk about his proposal and seek a zoning change that would allow the winery as a permitted use in the area.
“He didn’t get any interest from the council,” for that measure, said Neff.
Without the zoning change, DeBlasi could have sought a use variance from the borough Zoning Board of Adjustment, which would have meant meeting a fairly rigorous legal burden to show the negatives of the project didn’t outweigh any positives it would have brought. Instead he moved to the county seeking its approval.
“At the end of the day what we’re looking to do is to make absolutely sure when and if the (county) board approves this proposal, the (borough) council retains control over safety, health and welfare issues, particularly with regards to traffic and health codes that apply,” Neff said
The Agricultural Development Board meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 7 in the freeholders’ meeting chambers.