Ordinarily, this would be relatively mundane. But one councilmember who voted for the permit questioned if it was the intention of the council to allow wedding and party venues that can become less restrictive restaurants and wineries.
The council voted 6-0 at its Jan. 7 meeting to approve the conditional use permit that would allow a restaurant at the site. Councilmember Terry Hollander [District 5] was absent and Councilmember Joe Brazil [District 1] raised the question about the venue’s use.
The property has been used as a farm, a farm stand, a single-family home and to host special events such as weddings and private parties. The restaurant would operate inside the existing event center on the property using the existing kitchen. The owner is Sunflower Hill Farm, LLC and the applicant is Michael Koehneman.
The property has been zoned agriculture since the inception of county zoning in 1959. In 2017, a county conditional use permit was granted to allow weddings and private parties.
Councilmembers, including Brazil, praised Koehneman and his wife, Karen, for the work they have done in developing the restaurant. But after the council approved the conditional use permit Brazil said what is happening is people start out with doing weddings on weekends on smaller pieces of property, then they start selling wine and beer to the general public, and then the property becomes a full operation like a winery that uses less ground and has fewer restrictions.
Brazil and some residents of the largely rural southwestern part of the county have questioned whether a number of new wedding venues proposed in the last year will increase traffic and negatively impact the quality of life of residents.
“These people are very nice, they live on the site and they have done a great job,” Brazil said. “But this is exactly what I said would start happening; they are running a restaurant now.”
“Is this what our intentions were, to have these sort of operations spread out all over the county on less ground with fewer restrictions? That was my point, I voted no for these things,” he said in reference to early decisions by the council.
Brazil said the council opened the door to these kinds of arrangement when they approved a conditional use permit last year to allow some weddings as a concession for what had been a pumpkin patch farm in the northwest part of the county.
“I just wanted to make a point on these things because there are more of these things coming down the pike,” Brazil said.
Councilmember Joe Cronin [District 1] said the pumpkin farm was for little kids, the conditional use permit approves would allow some wholesome weddings and receptions, the permit is for a restaurant. “This is comparing apples and oranges, Mr. Brazil, it’s a totally different thing,” Cronin said.
Cronin said a conditional use permit, when property uses are out of the norm, allows the property owners to enact provisions to safeguard the neighbors and that’s what the Koehnemans did, and they did a good job, he said.