Queenston Mile Vineyard, the subject of controversy since it initially sought zoning from the town to operate as an estate winery, is in the process of being acquired by Diamond Estates Wine and Spirits, with an expected date of completion of the sale in September.
There has already been one Local Planning Appeal Tribunal decision between the town and the winery owners — the tribunal ruled in favour of Queenston Mile — and now there is a second appeal filed by the winery.
Councillors were discussing the issue in a closed session Monday night. Lord Mayor Betty Disero said before the meeting, while not able to disclose the nature of the discussion, that council would be deciding how to proceed.
“We’ll be looking at our next steps,” she said.
“I suppose if they (the new owners) carry on with LPAT, we’ll have to carry on,” she added. “I don’t know what their plans are.”
Disero said she wasn’t surprised the winery had been sold. “They weren’t quiet about wanting to sell,” she said.
The outstanding issue with Queenston Mile, a continued sore spot with some councillors, had been the installation of commercial kitchen equipment, and the winery’s intentions of how they’re going to use it.
Councillors have said in the past they’re concerned the plan is for the winery to use their event space as a restaurant, and some councillors are still having issues with what they see as discrepancies of total capacity of people at events, inside and out. Questions about the intent of the winery have consistently elicited responses from Queenston Mile representatives, from the earliest discussions, that there is no plan for a restaurant. They want to be able to offer food and wine pairings during tastings, and they may use the kitchen for special events, but not to serve patrons in a restaurant dining room, they have repeatedly told council.
Also continuing issues of residents and council are the numbers of people allowed for special events, what kind of special events are permitted, whether there is enough parking, and even the water capacity of the winery.
Still outstanding in the minds of some council members is whether the processing of wine is being done on the property, as regulated for estate wineries, says Disero, given the space that’s available.
Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery operator Paul Harber has told councillors and town staff that while some wine may be produced at the Queenston Road location, production of all 50 acres of grapes is not being done on site, contrary to the town bylaw that regulates estate wineries.
“That was the real opposition, that people come to NOTL to visit wineries where grapes are grown and wine is processed onsite,” said Disero. The fear of wineries processing offsite is that wine-making becomes a mass production, she added, and not what estate wineries were intended to be. “It puts an end to that quaintness that is associated with farm wineries, that brought us our brand.”
Lawyer Tom Richardson, representing residents, has also expressed that concern, and has called on the town staff to investigate, and to contact the Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario for an inspection.
Disero says it’s a question that won’t be answered until the fall, when production is underway and can be investigated.
But it’s the delay of the decision to allow the kitchen equipment installation that is the subject of the current LPAT review, which will be the deciding body if the appeal goes forward.
At a July planning meeting, councillors were being asked again to allow the installation of the kitchen equipment to go ahead, lifting one of the town’s earlier conditions for rezoning.
Disero said for the sake of the residents, they wanted to have conditions that would limit the number of events and the number of people at the events. When councillors asked if they could continue to impose conditions before granting approval of the commercial kitchen, planning director Craig Larmour said he was not sure of the answer, and that it could take a month to find out.
Disero pointed to this particular situation as a symptom of a problem with the process, and the difficulty councillors are facing. They want to do the best they can for residents, but are facing a timeline for making planning decisions, as set by the province, that sometimes makes that impossible, and leads to applications for a decision from the provincial planning tribunal.
When proposed planning amendments are the subject of open houses and then statutory meetings, there is a report on the table with staff recommendations, says Disero. Councillors are not supposed to talk to staff or ask questions until those recommendations have been made, but by then, when residents speak out, it’s too far along in the process to respond to those concerns, she says.
Members of the public make their delegations, a number of questions are asked, “and then we’re expected as a council to approve the staff report, or be accused of making changes on the fly.”
If that’s the process, she says, “why bother having delegations? We can’t get the answers in a timeline that meets our deadline. Somehow we’ve got to get this turned around.”
Andrew Howard, president of Equity Wines, which includes Queenston Mile and Creekside Estates and is the company being purchased by Diamond Estates, says what should have been a relatively simple matter of zoning for an estate winery “couldn’t have been more complicated.”
The application for the first LPAT review was over a site plan agreement, with the town asking for the entrance to be moved from Queenston Road to Concession 6. The decision was in favour of the winery, he said, with the tribunal agreeing that “you can’t build a road through vineyards.”
The winery has tried instead to work with the neighbours on Queenston Road, planting some trees, and sprucing up some of the aspects of the property that residents had complained about, building a fence and adding some landscaping.
“We want to be good neighbours,” he said. “All we’re asking for now is the right to use some cooking equipment.”
They have applied for a “non-decision appeal,” given the planning department’s assertion it could take a while to give council the answers they are looking for.
“We’re expecting LPAT will decide for the town and for us, how the bylaw will be written, and give us some certainty about what the rules are.”
There has been “a lot of noise” around Queenston Mile’s plans, he said, and the question of
He doesn’t expect the sale of Equity Wines to to change anything for Queenston Mile, he aid.
Equity owners are also investors in Diamond Estates, and those “the handful” of those who are involved in winery operations will continue to be involved, he said
The ongoing difficulties with rezoning have been a topic of conversation with the new owners, he said.
But more importantly, they like what Queenston Mile and Creekside have to offer in the way of “premiumizing their portfolio.”
Equity Wines “come to the party with skills, production and interesting brands they like. We will add to what they have, and their capability of selling premium wines.”
As to the question of where the wine is produced, he says, it hs been answered, “full stop.” All wine production is done onsite, and because they use more manual methods than other wineries, they don’t need as much space. “We’re following all the rules,” he said.
The Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario has already sent an officer to look at the site, “and he told us ‘everything is in good order, you guys are good. You’re doing everything you need to do here.’”
The file is closed, added Howard.
He questions why some wineries are opposed to what Queenston Mile is doing, and others are supportive.
“When we do a good job, when we support each other, it’s good for all of us.”