By John Burton
LITTLE SILVER – Movement on approvals for the controversial Seven Bridges Road winery proposal appear to be on hold for the moment.
That has left borough officials waiting to see what will happen before they take their next step.
Last week, state officials rejected the Monmouth County Agricultural Development Board’s approval of the plan, saying they disagreed with the county’s ruling on a provision of the state’s Right To Farm Act. The county board overwhelmingly approved the winery plan during its Oct. 2 meeting. The approval appeared to pave the way for the property to be used for a future winery, tasting room and small retail market.
Hope Gruzlovic, a spokesperson for the state Agriculture Development Committee (SADC), said this week, the state committee took exception to the interpretation of the state statute by Christopher Beekman, the attorney representing the county board. Beekman determined that Seven Bridges Winery LLC was not obligated to provide documentation that at least 5 acres of the 15-acre property was a revenue-producing farm, earning at least $2,500 a year, to be deemed a valid farm. Beekman told the 11-member board on Oct. 2 that the property owner’s farmland tax assessment, which the property has had for about 15 years, was sufficient under the law.
That was not the opinion of the state committee’s legal counsel or state development committee, according to Gruzlovic.
But, the state’s decision does not nullify or reverse the county’s decision, Gruzlovic said.
“What we did was provide information to the county board to clarify the SADC’s position on this key point,” she said. It is up to county officials on how they should proceed.
If there is a formal appeal of the county board decision, the state committee would be the body to hear the appeal.
Under the law, the property owner has to show that the proposed use is permitted under local zoning and consistent with the local master plan. Barring that, there has to be evidence the commercial farm was in operation as of July 2, 1998, Gruzlovic said.
Borough officials are now considering what they should do next.
“Obviously, the borough is pleased that the state agrees with us in regard to the legal interpretation,” Little Silver Mayor Robert Neff Jr. said this week.
The state’s rejection of the county board’s interpretation has the borough council – which has opposed the plan on zoning and public safety grounds – holding off on formally appealing the county decision.
“At this point, we’ll wait and see what the applicant submits in response and go from there,” Neff said.
Beekman said, “It’s too early to say” what the county agriculture board’s next step will be. He has not been able to discuss the ruling with board members who meet monthly, usually the first Wednesday of the month.
“It’s all up in the air,” said Harriet Honigfeld, the county board secretary.
The 640 Seven Bridges Road property is located in a residential zone. Property owner Richard DeBlasi has said previously he has been using a portion of the site as a grape vineyard since 2003 and prior to that, the site had been used to grow and sell wheat.
This matter of the site’s income producing was a bone of contention among the property owner DeBlasi, the borough council and some area residents who are opposed to the plan. The county board determined the proposal did qualify as a valid agricultural use under the Right To Farm Act, intended to protect farms and agricultural businesses from overly burdensome restrictions and nuisance actions. But that decision was not the final word, even before the current development.
Seven Bridges Winery would have to submit its site plan and traffic plans to the county planning board and county engineers, state Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) and local construction permitting for final approval.
Neither DeBlasi nor his attorney, Patrick Accisano returned calls seeking comment.