Asked whether it bothers him that King County’s council has yet to vote on an ordinance that could have dire consequences for his business, Palouse Winery owner and founder George Kirkish says being a winemaker actually helps in situations like these.
“I’m a very patient individual,” he said. “This wine here that we’re making today, in 2019, we won’t be drinking that for probably three or four years.”
Kirkish is hopeful that it won’t take that long for the Metropolitan King County Council to approve an amendment that would exempt his and the handful of other wineries and cideries on Vashon-Maury from some of the provisions in the ordinance. The council held a meeting in Seattle on Sept. 16, when representatives from many wineries, including Palouse, spoke out against the ordinance. In the end, the council tabled the issue until October.
The stakes are high because the head of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce and many spirit industry businesses on the island say if the ordinance as currently written were passed, it would shut them down.
“I cannot support an ordinance that does not protect Vashon wineries that are in business today,” said King County Council chairman Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon wrote the amendment. “If Vashon wineries are not accommodated, I will oppose the ordinance with all my strength.”
Even though his amendment was not approved on Sept. 16, he hopes the council uses the time in between now and the next meeting wisely.
“I think it will be beneficial in the long run for members to have the time they need to understand the latest legislation and certainly give me more time to talk about an amendment that benefits Vashon,” McDermott said. “While nothing is certain, I think it will be beneficial to have this additional time.”
Problems With Provisions
McDermott’s amendment would allow existing businesses an exemption on setback, lot size, tasting space and arterial road access requirements detailed in the ordinance. In addition, the Mukai Farm and Garden, deemed a historic property, would be eligible to take on a tenant to help pay for the business’s operating costs.
Kirkish contends the proposed ordinance, 2018-0241.2, calls for his business to conform to provisions that are not possible to meet.
“The main thing is, I don’t think that they should be able to have given me permission to have a winery and then pull the rug out from underneath me and say, ‘Oh, we were just kidding. You can’t have a winery here anymore. You don’t fit into our model,’” Kirkish said. “After 17 years of investing my time, my money, my life, they shouldn’t just be able to come along and say, ‘No, you can’t do it anymore.’”
That includes the provision that the spirit industry businesses should be set back 75 feet from interior property lines adjoining rural area and residential zones — unless located in a building designated as historic resource.
“It doesn’t leave anything in the middle,” Kirkish said.
He is also concerned about the proposed ordinance’s provision that a winery, brewery or cidery’s tasting or retail area take up no more than 15% of the aggregate floor area of a business.
“We really turned our whole area into a tasting room,” Kirkish said. “It’s become a meeting ground for people to meet and talk and have wine.”
Laura Cherry, co-owner of Dragon’s Head Cider, said a number of ordinance provisions would be bad for her business, including requiring direct access to an arterial roadway — a street that provides for many cars. Dragon’s Head, on the rural 107th Ave. SW, is off of the two-lane Bank Road.
“There may be the possibility of a conditional use permit that would allow us to operate without being on an arterial,” Cherry said. “My understanding is that could take six to nine months and cost upwards of several thousand dollars, so it’s not a straightforward, easy thing to do. The whole ordinance is very complex, and that’s just one possible issue that would come up for us.”
Kay Longhi, president of the board of Friends of Mukai, said without McDermott’s amendment, it would not be possible for Mukai to bring on a new tenant — which could be a winery, cidery or brewery — for Mukai’s historic barreling plant that is more than 90 years old. The former barreling plant is closed and undergoing a substantial renovation, which is expected to be complete by the fall of 2020.
“We’re very, very hopeful,” Longhi said of the council’s pending decision on the ordinance. “We’ve met with Councilman McDermott, we know he supports our intended restoration of the building and he understands the need for regulations to be flexible to save historic buildings.”
She continued, “King County has an interest in making a success of that building …. We think Councilman McDermott’s amendment will help move that success along.”
Sammamish vs. Vashon
Council member Joe McDermott said the ordinance as currently written is geared toward stemming the challenges facing Sammamish Valley, which he believes do not apply to the island.
“If you apply a county-wide solution to all of unincorporated King County … you’re solving a problem that doesn’t exist on Vashon,” McDermott said in an interview. “Solving the problem presents challenges or impossibilities for … current wineries on the island.”
King County officials say the Washington wine scene has boomed over the last two decades, particularly in Sammamish Valley. But those same officials, including McDermott, say the growth has outpaced the regulations on the books for those entities.
“King County has, frankly, not done a good job at enforcing code in recent years,” McDermott said, noting there have been complaints, particularly in Sammamish, of traffic, parking and noise as a result of more wineries opening.
In 2016, the county commissioned a study to be done on the wine industry and create recommendations on how it could co-exist with the Sammamish Valley — but not Vashon, which was never mentioned in the 44-page document.
“In retrospect, maybe in some ways it should have, because we would have found we don’t have the same problems on Vashon that we do in Sammamish Valley,” McDermott said.
The Chamber and numerous Vashon spirit industry businesses questioned why Vashon was never included in the ordinance.
“What I’ve been saying is, ‘Legislation without representation’ — at no point did they come over and talk to us, which I think is a big problem, because we would be bound by the same law that would affect the Sammamish Valley,” said Jim Marsh, head of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce. “That was my No. 1 concern.”
The study’s release prompted King County Executive Dow Constantine to craft an ordinance and transmit it to the county council. But for the last two years, the governing body still has not made a decision on it.
‘We’ve known about this for over a year,” Marsh said. “It’s a sticky wicket because we’re asking for an amendment that exempts our space from the regulations they’re putting up in Sammamish.”
Marsh said it’s important for council members to realize that an ordinance on wineries, cideries and breweries cannot be written or passed with a one-size-fits-all approach.
“We want our situation to be looked at as unique — because we are,” he said.