Parking for a big party at Matthews Winery in the Sammamish Valley spread across the road onto protected farmland. Opponents of expanded commercial activity in the valley warn the incident highlights what will happen if the county relaxes restrictions outside of Woodinville.
A recent “White Party” at Matthews Winery in the Sammamish Valley outside of Woodinville attracted about 1,500 millennials dressed in summer whites to enjoy live music, wine and a warm evening under the stars. Cars backed up in both directions. Off-duty sheriff’s deputies directed traffic, but at one point had to close down the road because of an altercation with drunken partygoers.
To neighbors who have long complained about the proliferation of illegal wineries and tasting rooms in an area of the county zoned rural, the biggest offense of the night was parking 500 to 600 cars across the street on farmland that is part of the protected Sammamish Valley Agricultural Production District.
“It’s an outrageous escalation of the already lengthy list of violations,” said Michael Tanksley, president of the Hollywood Hill Association. He said that a handful of wineries and tasting rooms continue to increase their commercial activities without any enforcement action by the county.
County officials, who have been promising to address the conflicting uses in the valley for five years, say they will deliver legislation to the County Council within a few weeks.
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“There are a lot of strong opinions on all sides of the issue. We’re trying to find a balance,” said Diane Carlson, director of regional initiatives for the county executive. She said the proposed new rules would not allow events of the size and scale of the White Party.
Matthews Winery code violations date back to 2012, when the county cited the owners, Cliff and Diane Otis, for converting a garage into a tasting room without a building permit. Seven other tasting rooms were slapped with violation notices in 2015, but the county put all enforcement action on hold while it commissioned a wine-industry study and yearlong stakeholder review that concluded in August 2016.
In exchange, the offending businesses signed a settlement agreement with the county promising to not undertake any activity that would increase their “regulatory noncompliance.”
Cliff Otis said they have tried to follow all the county’s rules and obtain all the necessary permits to operate their business. He said the winery is allowed to have two events a year without a permit and did not know that the farmland across the road could not be used for parking.
Otis said he and his wife have spent thousands of dollars to satisfy county requirements for a building permit and are still awaiting the promised action by the County Council to clarify the land-use rules for rural properties in the valley.
“From our perspective, we’re waiting on King County to tell us what we can and can’t do,” Otis said.
The county in May issued an action report in which it pledged to revise existing wine-industry regulations while at the same time ensuring support for protected farmland and rural communities. The report proposes allowing some tasting rooms, wineries, distilleries and breweries on land currently zoned rural.
The plan would create two overlay zones as pilot projects. One would allow 10 properties immediately east of Woodinville currently zoned rural to develop stand-alone tasting rooms of up to 1,000 square feet. The second would allow wineries on lots of more than 5 acres and with direct access to arterials — which includes Matthews Winery — to host events without a special-use permit.
County officials said they would forward legislation to enact the proposed new rules by June. That legislation is still in County Executive Dow Constantine’s office.
Neighbors already skeptical of the expansion of commercial activities in the rural area say the event at Matthews Winery underscores their concerns about the threat to farmland that runs the length of the valley. They note that the winery website has an extensive listing of events — not just two — and advertises itself as a setting for weddings and other celebrations for as many as 175 people.
Marsha and Larry Martin, both lawyers who work in the land-use field and who also live in the Hollywood Hill neighborhood above the valley, say trying to accommodate more intensive retail and commercial uses is contrary to the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA), which drew a sharp line between urban and rural areas in order to contain new development and protect resource land, including farms and forests.
And they say adding more businesses creates more stormwater runoff and more pollution, jeopardizing the valley’s farming operations.
“They’re doing an end run around the GMA,” said Larry Martin. “There’s nothing rural about an 18-acre parking lot. It’s extremely upsetting to a lot of people here.”
The city of Woodinville also is strongly opposed to the county proposal to relax current restrictions on rural lands.
Susan Boundy-Sanders, a Woodinville City Council member, said more than 95 percent of wineries and tasting rooms are operating legally within the city of Woodinville and are clearly thriving. She estimates that six on the edge of the Sammamish Valley are violating land-use codes, but that just two of those are “blatantly expanding their illegal activities.”
“King County’s contemplated code changes would be a windfall for this very small number of businesses, but are not needed by the industry as a whole,” she said.
In a Sept. 1 posting on his County Executive Facebook page, Constantine said the county has begun enforcement action against Matthews Winery for hosting a large event without a permit and parking cars on protected farmland. He said he believes that the county can nurture the wine businesses while also supporting agriculture and respecting “the reasonable expectations of rural residents.”
John Starbard, director of the county Department of Permitting and Environmental Review, said the department will fine Matthews $100 for its violations. But he acknowledged, “For a major event for which there is a lot of revenue, a $100 fine may be quite modest.”
Some proponents of allowing wineries and tasting rooms in the valley’s rural areas see no problem with occasionally parking hundreds of cars on farmland where development rights were purchased with taxpayer money.
“They’re acting like parking cars for a couple of hours would destroy the farmland,” said County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who represents unincorporated areas in northeastern King County. She said the choice before the county is either to close down all the wineries and tasting rooms now doing business in the rural area outside of Woodinville, or open the area and see how it works.
“We aren’t unpreserving any farmland,” she said.
Meanwhile, neighbors are bracing for another large event along the same stretch of the valley. Sal Leone, who runs the Pink Tractor Fish Brewing Taproom and Silver Lake Winery tasting room, is hosting an Oktoberfest gathering Saturday. Leone was citied in 2015 for operating a business on land zoned for agricultural uses.