Stretching from the heart of Woodinville to north Redmond runs the idyllic Sammamish Valley, home to a number of farms, tourist designations, wineries and tasting rooms.
The valley produces vegetables, sod, fruit, trees and livestock, which are sold across the region and has attracted wine enthusiasts who flock to the wineries and tasting rooms that are much of the focus of Woodinville’s tourism district.
While these industries have been described as synergistic — the wineries get the pristine views the farmland provides and the farms get exposure to tourists — finding the perfect mixture has generated conflict in the valley.
Serena Glover, a member of the community group Friends of Sammamish Valley, is worried an increase in wine tasting rooms and commercial uses in the valley could displace farms.
“This is a very small ecosystem, there’s a very delicate balance between farms, rural and the burgeoning wine industry,” she said.
In recent years, several wineries and tasting rooms have set up just outside of the Woodinville tourism district in the center of the valley on the east side of Redmond-Woodinville Road Northeast. The majority are generally tasting rooms with wine production done at another location and located on land zoned for rural use. Under current county code, they are not allowed to operate in these areas.
According to a King County study of the area, neighbors of the wineries in the valley in recent years began filing code enforcement complaints against the facilities for operating without permits. The county eventually signed settlement agreements with 20 of the wineries and commissioned a study of the area to find a way forward. As part of the agreement, the wineries and tasting rooms could continue to operate until the county finished its study and passed an updated ordnance for winery, brewery and distillery regulations in unincorporated King County.
An ordinance was drafted by county Executive Dow Constantine’s office and is currently in the county council’s Planning, Rural Service and Environment Committee. It could appear before the county council for a vote by the end of the year. The ordinance would update regulations for alcohol producers in unincorporated King County that haven’t been revisited in around 15 years, said King County external relations specialist Calli Knight.
“(It’s) really with the goal of modernizing regulations,” she said.
THREE LEVELS AND TWO PILOT ZONES
Under the proposed ordinance, alcohol production facilities and tasting rooms would be broken into three categories.
The first and smallest would be for production facilities no larger than 1,500 square feet. These would not be able to have tasting onsite, events or sales. It would allow small-scale commercial production facilities to replace home businesses and limit the impacts to neighbors by eliminating walk-in, onsite tasting.
The next level would allow up to 3,500 square feet of space for properties of at least 2.5 acres of land. Product tasting and sales would be allowed and the businesses could obtain a temporary-use permit for events.
Finally, the largest zoning would allow for up to an 8,000 square foot facility on properties of at least 10 acres. Product tasting and sales would be allowed and events would still require special permits. In the Sammamish Valley, only two wineries have enough land to qualify for the largest category and would be allowed to host up to 24 events a year.
Additionally, the largest two classes of wineries would be required to grow at least 60 percent of their grapes onsite.
In addition to these countywide changes, two pilot project zones would be created in the Sammamish Valley that would allow most of the current wineries and tasting rooms on rural land to remain, at least through the duration of the three-year pilot program.
On the west side of the Redmond-Woodinville Road is the Sammamish Valley Agriculture Production District (APD), land that is protected by county code from development in an effort to preserve farmland. The district is 1,082 acres in total, of which 305 acres are being used for food production, 500 for equestrian uses, sod or tree farms and 230 acres are not farmable.
While most of the wineries and tasting rooms in the Sammamish Valley will be allowed to operate under the pilot zoning, Copia Farms is located on unincorporated rural land directly adjacent to the tourism district. It houses three tasting and tap rooms that will not be covered under the updated ordinance winery overlay.
Sal Leone owns the 1.5-acre property where he runs three tasting rooms: one for his brewery, one for his winery and one for his distillery. When he purchased the property around 2014, he said there was an operating tavern onsite, which he closed before opening his tasting rooms.
Leone owns 700 acres of vineyard and his Silver Lake Winery in Zillah, in Eastern Washington, where he produces all of his wine. He said when he bought the land, he was told it was zoned to facilitate tasting rooms as there had been a tavern on it for years, which the county had not shut down. When he bought it, Leone said the land was zoned within the APD and allowed his property to function as a tasting room, provided the primary use of the site was for agriculture. Leone said he set aside a large portion of his land for agriculture uses like raising hogs or growing crops.
Shortly after setting up, residents of the Hollywood Hills neighborhood began filing code complaints with the county about his business, he said. After following up with the county, Leone was told his property was actually in a rural zone, and not in the APD. He said this came from poor records kept by the county when his parcel, and the two directly to the north, were zoned as rural after a baseball park to the west was built. His property’s absence from the winery pilot program overlay is concerning to Leone.
“I find it ludicrous that they think they’re going to shut people down, there’s been no talk of grandfathering,” he said.
From Leone’s perspective, the county hasn’t done a good job keeping records and he shouldn’t be on the hook for what he said is the county’s mistakes. He said he’s not thumbing his nose at county regulations, but that his property — which is surrounded on two sides by Woodinville’s tourism district and by a baseball park on the third — should allow for his wineries to stay open. If he is not included in the wineries overlay, given that he doesn’t have enough land to qualify for a level-two permit, he would only be able to have what amounts to a home-winery-sized business with no tastings without appointments. If the county doesn’t include his property, Leone said he will sue.
“I will do whatever I need to do to protect my property and businesses,” he said.
SETTING A PRECEDENT
Glover said she is worried that if the county allows Copia Farms to operate on rural land, it will lead to other land speculators buying up parcels and suing the county to allow them to develop, destroying the farmland or pricing out the remaining farmers.
According to the King County GIS system, several properties in the valley have already been bought by large companies or their owners — including Brian Ross, owner of Oakpointe Communities and two plots directly to the north of Copia Farms, which were purchased by TRF Equities. The TRF Equities properties are currently being used to support a landscaping business and Leone said he hasn’t heard any talk of developing those plots.
“These guys are all hoping that the county’s gonna flip and allow commercial all up and down this road,” Glover said. “This is kind of what happens when the county doesn’t enforce code.”
Agriculture production districts and rural zoning and later the urban growth boundaries were created decades ago to protect against urban sprawl. Glover said she’s worried that if retail businesses are allowed in rural zones, it could lead to more challenges from developers who want to build around the farmland and ultimately end up like the Kent valley’s sprawling suburban neighborhoods. Friends of Sammamish Valley is pushing the county to revoke the pilot program zones and force the 20 tasting rooms operating out of compliance to move out of land zoned for rural uses.
However, since his property is not in the APD, Leone said he doesn’t know why it wasn’t included in the winery overlay. He thinks that since Copia Farms was the location neighbors decided to report — which he said may have brought the county’s attention to other wineries and tasting rooms in the area — leaving him out of the overlay may be a political gesture to Hollywood Hills neighbors.
“I think that the county is trying to find a solution and if they have to sacrifice a few people, I’m that sacrifice,” he said. “I’ve threatened that, I don’t know, I can’t do this, but I can have some stinky pigs and loud roosters and play old MacDonald all day.”
Leone said he wants to protect the farmland, as well as promote the wine industry. His ideal solution would be to extend the area where wineries, breweries and distilleries are allowed to both sides of the road all the way down to Northeast 124th Street while leveraging a small tax on their products to pay for infrastructure improvements and financial assistance for farms in the valley. At the same time, restrictions within the APD outside of that extended tourism zone could be increased and the county could purchase development rights to the agriculture land, like it has done in other areas.
Like Glover, Leone said the problem is finding the right mixture of agriculture, wineries and protections.
“You gotta find the perfect blend,” he said.