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.