By John Burton
LITTLE SILVER – The owner of a vineyard, who has been looking to establish a winery and retail operation there, is seeking to win county approval for the enterprise – which has become controversial in the borough – and possibly circumvent local jurisdiction.
Seven Bridges Winery, LLC, 640 Seven Bridges Road, has applied to the Monmouth County’s Agriculture Development Board in Freehold seeking its and the state’s approval to be allowed to move forward with plans by way of a county-issued site specific agricultural management practice plan. The submitted plan requests “an exemption of municipal site plan review,” as provided for under state statute, according to the application filed last month.
Seven Bridges Winery is owned by Richard DeBlasi, who also resides on the property. In November 2011, DeBlasi and his attorney met informally with the mayor and borough council to offer his proposal and seek a zoning change to make the business a permitted use in the largely residential area.
DeBlasi owns 15 acres on Seven Bridges Road, with about 5 of them dedicated to a grape vineyard and approximately 7 acres as protected wetlands. About 12.7 acres on the property is assessed as farmland. DeBlasi has been growing grapes there since April 2003 when he planted his first acre and produced his first harvest in September 2005, yielding about a ton of wine grapes, according to his application.
Before April 2003 the farm produced hay for sale, the application noted.
Along with running a winery and vineyard, DeBlasi has said previously he hoped to sell his wine on site and possibly operate tours and tastings.
That has raised concerns with a considerable number of area residents who have expressed their opposition, fearing increased traffic and activity in the neighborhood.
The borough council has not formally acted on DeBlasi’s zoning change request.
DeBlasi did not immediately respond to a phone call this week seeking comment.
Al Natali, who owns and operates Natali Vineyards in Cape May, said he has been working with DeBlasi on his development.
Natali said Seven Bridges Winery is seeking approval through the state statute commonly referred to as the Right to Farm Act.
The state Legislature approved the bill in 1983, amending it in 1998.
“The act protects responsible commercial farmers from public and private nuisance actions and unduly restrictive municipal regulations,” according to the state Department of Agriculture website.
Should DeBlasi eventually win approval from the county board, Natali contended the municipality couldn’t deny the use. Under Right to Farm, “local zoning is pre-empted,” he said.
The act is intended to protect farming activity, “but someone who’s farming still must fulfill public safety and health issues,” said Laura Kirkpatrick, a county spokeswoman.
Mayor Robert Neff Jr. said he has “heard a fair amount of opposition” to the proposal as it was being debated.
Neff said borough officials are “extremely concerned our residents have the ability to comment on the application and that the town retain control over its own zoning and its own destiny.”
John Bennett, the borough attorney, is researching the matter, Neff said.
The county’s Agricultural Development Board “handles all matters agricultural and horticultural for the county,” Kirkpatrick said. The application is currently under its review and a public hearing will be held in the coming months, maybe as early as May, she said.