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Seed Planted for Seven Bridges Winery

Vineyard across from Silverside Avenue wants to open for tastings and retail, but council has traffic concerns.

The owner of the vineyard located across from Silverside Avenue on Seven Bridges Road is seeking to grow it into a retail winery, but must first prove to council that doing so won't mean more traffic trouble for Little Silver.

Richard DeBlasi, who owns the 15-acre property, has submitted an early draft of a proposed ordinance amendment which his lawyer John Giunco says "would allow for vineyards and wineries to operate in the Borough generally, and on Mr. DeBlasi's property."

Giunco's letter and proposed ordinance were discussed during a recent council workshop meeting.

"It's simple really, what he would like to do is have it be a place where wine tastings could occur and wine sold," said Mayor Robert C. Neff, Jr. as he introduced the item.

DeBlasi would like the town to rezone his property, which is located in the Borough's R-1 (residential) zone district, to allow for the sales of juices, wine and/or brandy processed on site in the winery, along with associated accessory products such as corkscrews, wine totes, wine buckets, wine glasses decanters, small wine racks, small uncorking and preservation machines and small wine barrels and literature. Food products may also be sold, along with cheese, crackers or other condiments associated with wine sampling.

"You're changing the R-1 zone to make that a permitted use," said Councilman Dan O'Hern. "It wouldn't just impact that property, it would impact the entire area."

O'Hern wondered if the zoning for the area was changed, that would allow for multiple wineries to pop up. Borough Attorney John O. Bennett, III acknowledged the possibility, but said the council could create restrictions that only allow properties of a certain size to become wineries.

Bennett said he had two main concerns about the project: keeping access to the winery away from the busy intersection of Seven Bridges Road at Silverside Avenue (across from which there is currently a driveway on the property) and controlling the size of buildings.

"My understanding is he's not looking to have any additional buildings constructed," said Bennett. "In fact the building that's there in the back is what he's interested in using."

Council President Dan Levine called attention to , and said he did not like the idea of more traffic there.

Levine wanted to know what the benefit to Little Silver would be in setting up a retail establishment along the busy residential thoroughfare. He felt DeBlasi should have to prove the project's advantage, no matter the cost. Councilman Jonathan Bitman agreed.

"Just because it might cost $50,000 or $100,000 in paperwork and presentations, so be it," said Bitman. "If we think traffic is a concern, I want a traffic study done saying 'how many people do you expect' and not just 'well we anticipate 35 cars a day.' If it's 35 cars a day, what is your anticipated revenue? How do you get a per carload of dollars? [I want] an in-depth presentation of why they want to do it and why traffic won't become a problem to our citizens."

Councilman David Gilmour said the council raised similar questions in a discussion they had in previous years about another proposed winery.

"What's stopping them from bringing a busload of people in there?" Gilmour asked. "I wouldn't want any more expansion than what's already there. I think the road is a mess, I think it's high volume, I can't see any benefit or it being safe in any way to add more activity to that parcel of land."

Bennett felt the winery on one of the Borough's larger tracts of land would be better than a developer coming in and using a builder's remedy lawsuit to construct a project of whatever proportions they desired.

"We certainly would like it to stay open space, whether that be farming on a vineyard or anything, because the alternative is that if we can't make that economically supportive, the next step is that this -- especially with our affordable housing issue up in the air -- this could become a prime spot for something that could happen," said Bennett.

Councilman Stuart Van Winkle concurred.

"In terms of a long term fix, maybe not everyone agrees that a vineyard is a good thing, but in my opinion, kind of in the long term whole scheme of things that property is something that could be clearly on the table for real estate development. Having some kind of a low-key vineyard could be a real attractive solution," said Van Winkle.

Bitman said DeBlasi is currently benefitting from a farm tax assessment and asked Bennett if some of the benefits could be taken away and the property reassessed if it were to be rezoned to allow for retail. Bennett said he would leave that for the tax assessor to decide.

As Bennett also serves as Township Attorney for Colts Neck, he said he would look into how wineries have been set up there, such as 4JG's. He said he would review the Colts Neck ordinance as well.

To begin the approval process, something the council decided they are not ready to consider yet, Bennett said the council would have to introduce an ordinance which would then go to the planning board. The planning board would review the ordinance and make recommendations back to the council. Once the council and planning board agree upon an ordinance, they would have a second reading at a public hearing, after which they would adopt it.

Bennett doesn't see any of that happening before the end of the year.

Councilmen Galante and O'Hern said they wanted to know more about the project before it is sent along to the planning board. Neff felt DeBlasi should come to a future council meeting to discuss the project.

"At this point, we're not saying yes, we're not saying no. We just want to know more before we make a decision," Neff said.

Gavino November 16, 2011 at 02:58 PM
As a LS wine maker (with no aspirations of opening a winery or tasing room in the Boro), I welcome the efforts of DiBlasi. His property already admits two driveways, and thus traffic in and out (which, frankly, is never gonna be THAT heavy) is not really an issue. And unless the laws have recently changed, the NJ Farm Winery law imposes a minimum of 3 acres to be in production. there are very, very few properties in town that even approach 3 acres. Let this man do his thing. It will help the Boro with minimal invasiveness or complexity. Gavino Villapiano
John Anderson November 16, 2011 at 04:28 PM
Wow Little Silver's council is even less business friendly than even Red bank. The republicans are a disgrace to the party for being so hostile to proposed business.
Don November 16, 2011 at 05:44 PM
John, you should get your facts straight. If you read the article, you have an Independent and Democrat also concerned about the proposed business.
Greg Kulaga November 16, 2011 at 08:15 PM
Yes, to be clear, Dan Levine is an Independent and Dan O'Hern is a Democrat. All others mentioned are Republicans.
S Talarico November 17, 2011 at 11:34 AM
If he's turning his estate into a business, he needs to be taxed as such. He's getting a farm assessment tax right now - probably why he planted the vines in the first place. I'd like to see him pay his fair share of taxes if he goes retail.
Gavino November 17, 2011 at 01:21 PM
Again, I believe the only way he can grow grapes in the state and claim it as a NJ wine is under the Farm Winery Act, which compels the owner to have 3 acres in production. It may in fact be a tax break, but it is consciously written in, so as to encourage wineries in the state. That he should also have a tasting room and shop - a retail outlet, as it were - is nonetheless covered by the law. That is, it is a business, but it is a specialized business by law. If you think it's a problem, the problem isn't with the motives of DiBlasi but with the framers of the law. Take it up with them.
Bob July 23, 2012 at 01:46 AM
The winery is appealing to the area. It gives this area reality with what people want. As usual, the government are fighting the people. Mr DeBlasi, wants to experience his roots and should be allowed to. He is trying to improve the whole area and after living there 30 years he just may know more than a transient city counsel with ulterior motives against him. It is picture perfect driving on Seven Bridges Road to see the Winery. It adds to the attractiveness of Little Silver and makes it a model for the State of New Jersey.

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