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Upper planners hold off on winery proposal
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Upper planners hold off on winery proposal

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Set in a quiet neighborhood in the Beesleys Point section of Upper Township, lines of grapes grow in a small vineyard. It is set to be dubbed Ocean City Winery.

UPPER TOWNSHIP — The Upper Township Planning Board on Thursday held off on hearing a proposal for a winery on a former Christmas tree farm in the Beesleys Point section of the township.

The property owner, Michael Halpern, is already growing grapes at the site for what he’s calling the Ocean City Winery. Halpern has not produced any wine for sale there to date.

The issue, however, is more that multiple neighbors are upset that the proposal includes adding a tasting room with 80 seats to the winery. They believe it will bring far too much traffic to their quiet neighborhood, and the site will eventually host weddings and other events.

A site plan for the proposal was set for review by the Planning Board on Thursday, but after a closed-door talk to discuss potential litigation, the board decided not to proceed. Instead, Planning Board attorney Jeffrey Barnes will meet with Daniel Young the township solicitor, to discuss what should happen next.

Planning Board members said at the meeting that questions remain about the jurisdiction for the project. When neighbors brought their concern to an earlier Township Committee meeting, members of the governing body said they were reluctant to weigh in on a matter that could be up to the Planning Board.

Part of the confusion stems from the property’s status as preserved farmland.

When it was still a tree farm, the previous owner sold the development rights to the county, which meant a cash infusion and a reduced tax bill. The county Open Space program has expanded to recreational facilities, and several sources indicate the property would not be large enough to be seen as a farm, with about three acres of the five-acre property under cultivation.

Several sources say the property has been designated a working farm by the Cape May County Agricultural Development Board.

So far, the board has not ruled on the proposal for a tasting room. The property owner had held off on that part of the application, known as a site-specific agricultural management plan, after neighbors and Upper Township representatives raised concerns about the winery proposal.

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Attempts to contact the County Agricultural Development Board for comment Monday were unsuccessful, and there was no answer at the county Division of Open Space and Farmland Preservation.

Neighbors attended the Planning Board meeting on Thursday, accompanying attorney Timothy Mooney, who is representing those opposing the plan. He asked the board not to act at the meeting, saying the public has not had enough time to review the plans.

“The winery is a very large expansion of an already nonconforming use,” Mooney said. “The board should refuse any action that would give a stamp of legitimacy to the proposed winery.”

The board decided not to hear the application, or take any action. The board also decided against opening the meeting to public comment on the application.

In previous interviews, an attorney for the property owner said the tasting room and winery have a right to proceed under New Jersey’s Right to Farm Act. Attorney Colin Bell said a tasting room is considered an allowable ancillary use for a winery, much like a farm stand for a vegetable farm.

Plans call for 28 parking spaces, according to the discussions at the Planning Board meeting. Some neighbors have said the proposal will increase traffic on their quiet, residential streets, but the plans as presented show the entrance and exit off Route 9.

There is still a gate on Route 9 and a track leading back to the already-built barn, apparently a remnant of the site’s history as a Christmas tree farm.

The owner has agreed to limit the hours of operation and promised not to have any weddings aside from those of family members at the site. Still, opponents appear adamant. At previous meetings, they cited concerns about everything from safety to excess noise.

In an earlier interview, Bell said the approval of the Agricultural Development Board would be enough for plans to proceed, but he said the owner wants to work with the township and the neighbors so long as he can develop an economically viable business on the property.

According to the discussion at the Planning Board meeting, one possibility on the table for the planned discussion with the township includes joining the neighbors in an appeal of the property’s designation as a farm.

Contact Bill Barlow:

609-272-7290

bbarlow@pressofac.com

Twitter @jerseynews_bill

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