Zoning exception for cidery comes at a high price

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The opening of the Rapid Creek Cidery at Wilson’s Orchard on Dingleberry Road has been noted in several media stories applauding the project. While I am agnostic about the new building itself, there is an aside to the Cidery story that should concern all county citizens. The creation of new zoning uses that never existed before allowed its construction and uses on agricultural-zoned rural property. The cidery offers unique amenities, but those came at a high price and I hope they remain one of a kind.

The item in the June 2015 agenda was simple: An application by Wilson’s Orchard for a conditional use permit for a cidery and retail orchard. As defined by Johnson County ordinance, a retail orchard is “land used for the growing and limited sale of trees, fruits, vegetables, and the retail sale of assorted products not produced on site.” The ordinance defines a cidery as “a facility for the preparation, marketing, and distribution of (cider). May include a tasting room or sales area.” Good for Wilson’s, I thought — a small building with cider making equipment and a small, 25 seat tasting room. Not thinking those definitions would be abused; I did not attend that meeting.

I should have. Wilson’s Orchard benefited from an unprecedented interpretation of an expansion of a retail orchard by the (now former) county Planning, Development and Sustainability Administrator. What was not evident from the agenda, and what I did not have an opportunity to object to, was the orchard’s proposal for a 400-seat events center, hosting an unlimited number of events, and a five-days-a-week restaurant. The problem is that Wilson’s Orchard is zoned for agricultural use. These two uses do not exist in our ordinance and have never before occurred on agricultural-zoned land.

According to the ordinance, people with events centers on agricultural land may only apply for a Multiple Special Events permit that allows them to host a maximum of 12 events a year. Only an events center on Commercial zoned land can have unlimited events. The ordinance also states the only place a restaurant can be located is on commercial-zoned land.

If Wilson’s rchard expansion occurred on commercial land, the ordinance would permit it and I would have no objection. But it is on agricultural land, so I am disappointed in a process and policy failure and the lack of political will to immediately correct it. The ordinance failed to protect us, and this abuse of discretion should not be repeated.

The new Planning, Development and Sustainability Administrator has stated the process that resulted in the expansion of Wilson’s Orchard would not be repeated. Johnson County has applied zoning ordinances for 57 years that clearly state what structures and what activities can occur on land with specific types of zoning — residential, agriculture, and commercial. When properly applied, the ordinance minimizes incompatible uses between neighbors; gives residents rules they depend on; preserves farmland; and helps define orderly growth in the rural areas of the county. The failure at Wilson’s Orchard to prevent the separation of agricultural and commercial activities should give county residents sober pause as we look ahead.

Johnson County is presently reviewing its land-use policies as it creates a new Comprehensive Plan in 2018. We need to prevent the drip, drip, drip of rural development such as the Dooley Farm in 2013 and Wilson’s Orchard that cumulatively creates urban sprawl. We also need creativity to increase options for small-acre farmers and ag-tourism businesses. These opportunities need to be in proportion to what rural areas can sustain. Rapid Creek Cidery came at a heavy price for the county. We cannot ruin with unsustainable development the very rural ambience we cherish and that attracts visitors.

• Tom Carsner has advocated for sustainable rural development in Johnson County for over 20 years.

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