File photo

File photo

King County alcohol production ordinance could be approved by year’s end

Update to county code has been more than a year in the making.

Changes to King County code that will shape the course of alcohol production in unincorporated areas could again go before the King County Council for action by the end of the year.

The proposed changes have been nearly 18 months in the making. County leaders and residents still continue to hash out what regulations they would like to see surrounding alcohol production facilities and tasting rooms. Officials hope the ordinance will clarify regulations for businesses owners of booze facilities and also clarify protections for agriculture lands. If approved, it will be the first update to these regulations since 2003.

The county council has had a difficult time balancing the competing interests. Neighbors of existing tasting rooms and wineries in the Sammamish Valley worry about industry creeping into the farmlands, and business owners worry that over-regulation will kill their operations.

At a Sept. 16 county Committee of the Whole meeting, council members discussed their most recent striker amendment. This included recommendations such as requiring 300 square feet of space per vehicle on-site, requiring larger alcohol producers to grow 60 percent of ingredients used at their location on agriculture lands, and allowing Vashon Island and Fall City’s town centers to open small tasting rooms.

Earlier versions of the ordinance would have created three pilot program zones, where remote tasting rooms not connected to production facilities could set up shop. This included areas surrounding Woodinville’s wine district in the Sammamish Valley, the Vashon Town Center and Fall City. However, council member Claudia Balducci said that since Vashon and Fall City already have functioning town centers, and said it wasn’t a major change to add tasting rooms as an approved use in those areas without a pilot program.

The Sammamish Valley zone was still being discussed at the committee meeting. One area of concern was whether to give existing businesses 12 months to come into compliance with the new county code, or give them the same amount of time to prove they have been in compliance with existing county code in order to be grandfathered in under a new ordinance.

The striker also included language that would ban alcohol facilities and remote tasting rooms as being classified as home occupations. It would instead create a three-tiered production system based on total acreage and size of the facilities, with the smallest tier replacing home-based alcohol production operations.

Council member Kathy Lambert voiced her concerns about the ordinance in its current form. She was worried that it would effectively close down existing businesses that have been operating in unincorporated King County.

“This is not balance, this is putting them all out of business just about,” she said.

She cited increases in parking requirements, which she said would wipe out small businesses. Other council members said they wanted more time to look over the proposed amendments, and asked that the committee review it again at its Oct. 7 meeting.

“To me, it’s reasonable that they would get an opportunity to vet what is being proposed a little bit more,” council member Larry Gossett said.

Following the Oct. 7 meeting, residents will have 45 days to submit public comment. The ordinance could appear before the King County Council for action in December.

The tension surrounding alcohol production facilities — and wineries and tasting rooms in particular — came to a head in recent years as these businesses began opening just outside of Woodinville’s wine district. Many aren’t more than a stone’s throw from city limits, but they sit on county land, on both rural buffer zones and in some cases agriculture-zoned property.

Neighbors began filing code enforcement complaints against these businesses and the county eventually signed settlement agreements with 20 wineries in the area, agreeing to find a way forward.

The agreement said wineries and tasting rooms could keep operating until the county finished a study and updated its ordinances on wineries, breweries and distillery regulations. Others worry that if businesses are allowed to stay in agricultural areas, it could open the door for developers to begin land speculation — and drive up the price of land beyond what most farmers can pay.

Breweries elsewhere in the county, including Four Horsemen Brewery in Kent, have already come under scrutiny because of zoning issues, Komo News reported in early 2018.

At the Sept. 16 meeting, Balducci urged the council to pass an ordinance to bring clarity to business owners. She also said the county should make investments to help businesses come into compliance with county code.

“I think we need to move forward and we need to adopt something,” she said. “If we’re going to act at all, we should act soon. The current situation isn’t sustainable and it isn’t working for people.”

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