Tuesday, January 1, 2008

County Alleges Illegal Operation

Owners, zoning enforcement dispute need for conditional use permit for tasting room

By Sondra Murphy
Nestled behind Rancho Arnaz, Old Creek Ranch Winery has been in business since 1981. Current owners, John and Carmel Whitman, inherited half the business in 1996, then bought out family partners in 2000. The winery is now in the midst of a dispute with Ventura County. Contrary to published reports, the winery has not closed.
The primary disagreement centers on the county’s requiring the winery to obtain a conditional use permit for their popular wine tasting room. In a notice of violation dated Dec. 10, the Whitmans were informed they needed the permit in order to continue offering wine tasting to customers.
“Basically, it’s real simple,” said Stephen Alary of the county’s zoning enforcement division. “They have a wine tasting room without a conditional use permit.” Alary said Ventura County allows wine tasting rooms up to 2,000 square feet without a C.U.P., which is also required if the public uses a facility.
In addition to the tasting room, the notice of violation lists maintaining offsite advertising for a sign that has been in place since the facility opened. The Whitmans’ lawyer has filed an appeal with the Planning Division. Without an appeal, the Whitmans would have had until Jan. 9 to remain open by filing a C.U.P.
“We were told to give them a check for $4,000 to start the permitting process and we will be billed $158 per hour thereafter. At that point the process becomes open-ended,” said John Whitman. “I don’t want it to sound like sour grapes here, but the wine tasting room was pre-existing when we purchased the facility.” He does not agree that a C.U.P. is necessary for the winery to function within the law. “We have to file with the federal government and pay those taxes and fees,” he said.
The winery also pays state excise tax, Alcohol Beverage Control fees and needs a license to purchase the grapes used in their wine making. “When you receive your ABC license from the state of California, it says that you have the right to do tastings, the right to provide condiments and the right to sell pre-packaged food items not for consumption at the facility,” John Whitman said. According to Whitman, the county has told them to cease selling olive oils, hot sauces and garlic condiments, as well.
Old Creek Ranch Winery produces eight different types of wines, from chardonnays, rhones, and burgundies to Italian varieties. It was Carmel Whitman’s parents who started the winery and someone in the family has been running it since. They have historical documents to submit to the county with their appeal that show the facility was signed off by county inspectors when it was first created.
John Whitman feels that since the winery predates the C.U.P. regulation, they should be allowed to continue operations through the grandfather clause. “We’re a micro-winery,” he said. “We’re a small business. The situation is more analogous to an artist having a small studio, but we are in the art of wine making.”
After all the other taxes and fees, the Whitmans feel the extra fees required by the county are unreasonable. “The only advantage that a small winery like this has over bigger ones is to hand-tailor the wine. There are three wineries in Ventura County and they’re all going out of business,” said John Whitman. “This county should be stimulating these activities.”
The Whitmans hold special events and parties at the site and frequently host fund-raising events with no charge to the organizations. Recent benefits have included Ojai Humane Society, Ventura Music Festival, Ventura High School’s A.V.I.D. program and Ojai’s M.A.E.S.T.R.O. They are also business sponsors for the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.
“We were getting this down to a science,” said Carmel Whitman about the benefits. “For example, we had the A.V.I.D. event on a Saturday, then the M.A.E.S.T.R.O. event on Sunday, so they could share the cost of the tables. Because that was piggybacked, it made it easier for both groups to raise money.” She added that the Ojai Raptor Center has expressed interest in holding a benefit at the winery this spring and a Ventura teacher hopes to hold a retirement party at the end of the school year.
Besides the benefits to community groups the winery is able to offer, John Whitman pointed out that they do business with local companies, such as Ventura Rentals in Oak View, which may be impacted if the winery is forced to close. “If we’re breaking the law here, we’ll stop,” he said. “We have other options.” He said that Santa Barbara County has asked them to move their tasting room up there and a Paso Robles distributor has said they will take their wine.
“We’re trying to make it work for the community,” John Whitman said. “If not, we’ll make the wines here and sell them somewhere else.” But closing the Ventura County facility is not something the Whitmans want to do. “It’s a little jewel of a place here,” said John Whitman. “You sit out on our deck and look out over a cherry orchard.”


Anonymous said...

What's the point of giving these people so much grief? Is there more going on here than meets the eye?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the county is just trying to drum up more money so it can spend in on pay raises for these lazy government workers