A large barn on Queenston Road is under renovation, as its owners pretty it up in preparation for selling high-end wine.
The improvements are making some of its neighbours nervous, but they shouldn't be, said Alison Zalepa, general manager of Queenston Mile Winery – the only change they'll see, other than the steel pole barn on the 50-acre property turned into something far more aesthetically pleasing, will be a small retail space added to the wine-making equipment.
“It will look modern, sleek, and beautiful sitting on the landscape,” she said.
Zalepa, also general manager of the sister Creekside Winery in Jordan, represents Equity Wine Group, a privately-held company that owns and builds small craft wineries in Ontario. She said their goal is to make small batches of ultra-premium, small-lot VQA wine, to be sold through a wine club, a limited number of restaurants, and at the cellar door.
There won't be hordes of traffic travelling to the small winery – it is expected to produce less 200 cases of wine a year – and there will be no buses.
But if it doesn't receive a site plan approval for a farm winery soon, it won't have any wine at all from this year's grapes.
Zalepa said she understands a new business can make people uncomfortable, but she is willing to work with neighbours to solve their problems. She's listening to their concerns and is willing to do whatever is reasonable to address them, she said.
It was clear though when residents came to council with their concerns last week, what they are really afraid of is an estate winery too close to their homes, with a restaurant, an increased number of visitors and the special events estate wineries are allowed to hold – although at this time, what is before the planning department for approval is a site plan for a farm winery only.
“We are not here in regards to an estate winery proposal,” former planning director John Hendricks, now principal planner for Niagara Planning Group, told councillors. “All we're dealing with is an application for a farm winery.”
He said a restaurant is not proposed as part of the farm winery, which they hope to have open in 2018. They are looking down the road at applying for an estate winery in 2019.
The farm winery will use the existing building, the existing driveway, and will not draw a lot of retail traffic, he added.
An estate winery would requiring rezoning, and a public process during which residents would be asked for their input, but there is no public process required as part of a site plan approval for a farm winery.
Although some neighbours questioned whether there was any intention of operating a farm winery, with no visible equipment, Hendricks said they're waiting for site plan approval before moving in barrels and other wine-making equipment.
“The fruit is growing, the barrels are on order, but we can't do anything until a farm winery is approved.”
Coun. Betty Disero tried two tactics to help residents.
Although farm winery site plans are approved by the planning director without council input, she asked that in this case, the site plan be brought to council, recognizing the proximity of the winery to neighbouring homes.
Councillors need to know what is happening with the property, she said, because if there are problems down the road, they will be the ones to get the calls of complaint.
Residents also need to know that if the farm winery is approved, it doesn't automatically guarantee zoning for an estate winery, she said.
She failed to get support for that part of her motion, over concern from other councillors that it would unfairly delay site plan approval, and with assurances from the town planning director, Craig Larmour, that he is satisfied the site plan is for a farm winery, and nothing more.
She also asked and received support for adding some conditions be met before site plan approval, although it was made clear that the planning director could work with the applicant but not dictate those conditions be met.
Disero asked for landscaping along the borders of abutting properties and to conceal parking, dust control measures on the gravel entrance to the winery, and no parking on the north side of the property, nearest to residents. She also asked for a warning sign to advise cyclists and pedestrians of a hidden driveway.
“I'd like to ensure staff will do everything they can to have these conditions met,” she said.
Zalepa said most of those concerns have already been addressed, and she is hoping for good news soon from the planning director on the site plan application.
“We've been working on this since March. We're not taking it lightly,” she said. “We want to make our neighbours happy.”