St. Charles County officials continue to wrestle with protecting the “integrity of the wine district” in the southwestern part of the county from what one county councilman calls “commercial box wedding venues.”
Councilmember Joe Brazil [District 2], who represents much of the district, has been suggesting ways to regulate wedding venues particularly those proposed near existing wineries.
The council approved two requests for conditional use permits that allowed new wedding and reception venues and rejected another at its July 31 meeting. The rejected request was sought by Fall Creek Weddings LLC to allow wedding receptions on 13.7 acres on the northwest corner of Hwy. 94 and Hemsath Road.
The permit was needed to allow for a wedding chapel and “event barn” or reception area for up to 280 guests. Fall Creek Weddings LLC, which is based in Houston, operates wedding facilities in Texas and Georgia. Officials with the company called weddings a “hot concept” that could draw 25,000 to 30,000 guests annually for as many as 150 events. However, their request was opposed by the nearby Noboleis Vineyards across Hemsath Road and residents who said such venues would generate excessive drinking, more traffic on rural roads, and a loss of peace and quiet.
At the July 31 meeting, Brazil proposed a bill amending how the county regulates rural recreational activities allowed as conditional uses in agricultural-zoned areas of the county. The new bill states that weddings, wedding receptions, meetings and conferences would have to be held indoors on sites of not less than 20 acres.
Brazil said he particularly wants to address protecting the wineries. The vineyards and wineries along the south facing bluffs of the Missouri River near Augusta and along Hwy. 94 have become major tourist attractions. In 1980, much of the area was designed as the first American Viticultural Area by the federal government.
Other councilmembers also were sympathetic toward the winery area when they discussed the bill at a council work session on Aug. 28, but they weren’t quick to jump on board with Brazil’s bill.
“They really have something special in that district with the wineries and to just flood it with other venues I think will really hurt the industry,” said Councilmember John White [District 7].
“I don’t think that’s the question right now,” said Council Chair Mike Elam [District 3]. “I think the question is do you build the ordinance based on District 2 and not take into consideration that you put the same restrictions on the other six districts that you put under District 2.”
The county is divided into seven council districts with most of the wineries located in District 2 in the southern and western parts of the county.
Brazil suggested an ordinance provision that would prohibit wedding venues within a certain number of feet of wineries instead of an acreage restriction. He said without controls, “commercial box wedding venues” will spring up around wineries, hurting the tourism the wineries have generated. County Counselor Keith Hazelwood suggested that any restrictions be included as part of a conditional use permitting process.
Brazil said he would sit down with the county’s Community Development Director Mike Hurlbert to develop distance requirements. That decision came after councilmembers said they didn’t like the 20-acre provision in Brazil’s earlier bill.
“I don’t think anybody around this table with you disagrees with you on that point [protecting winery tourism],” Elam said to Brazil. “What we’re disagreeing with is, I think, how we best protect it without hurting the other six districts.”
Elam said he was completely opposed to a 20-acre restriction.
Councilmember Joe Cronin [District 1] described Brazil’s proposal as “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.” The council and county staff had three permit requests and one time and worked through them, he said. “I don’t think we have a big problem with the existing rules we have.”
Tony Kooyumjian, the owner of Montelle Winery in Augusta, told the councilmembers that wineries have a tie with agriculture in the county because many grow their own grapes. The few weddings they host each year help them survive. Big wedding operations are something different.
“I’m a resident, the reason I moved to southwest St. Charles County was because I wanted peace and quiet. I wanted a lifestyle where I wasn’t inhibited by traffic,” Kooyumjian said. “When you have wedding venue that potentially could have 150 to 350 people, 150 [events] a year for just one business – now four or five or 10 or 20 businesses – our lifestyle is going to be changed.”
Kooyumjian said he saw it happen in Oregon and California when wedding and dining venues started to spring up, crowding inadequate rural roads.
But Cronin said the rise of a small distillery industry involving corn in his district in the northeast part of the county could be impacted by restrictions meant for the winery area.
A conditional use permit regulation may result in more localized restrictions, Elam said. “An ordinance is countywide,” he said.
Kooyumjian, however, questioned the effectiveness of conditional use permits in limiting wedding venues and other development, calling the permits “spot zoning.”