New rules for craft alcohol makers draw scrutiny

EVERETT — Proposed rules for operating small-scale breweries, distilleries and wineries in rural Snohomish County aren’t sitting well with everyone at the table.

The County Council is set to consider the new regulations for craft alcohol makers Wednesday. Council members want to help small tasting rooms and production facilities flourish in rural and agricultural areas, while also minimizing negative impacts on neighbors, such as increased noise and traffic.

Many such businesses already exist under county rules for home-based businesses.

Snohomish Valley farmer Mark Craven doesn’t disagree with the intent of the rules, but wants to make sure they support local agriculture. Craven wants to prevent farmland getting gobbled up by businesses that could just as easily prosper elsewhere.

“I’m not in favor of somebody buying farmland and starting a distillery,” he said.

“As long as you’re a farmer and you’re actively farming, I’m all in favor of that.”

He also questioned whether there’s enough local production to support 4,000-square-foot businesses that would be allowed under the new code.

The rules have evolved since making their way through the county planning commission last year. They deal not only with agricultural land, but also rural areas zoned for residential, business and industrial use. Land designed as R-5, which typically allows only one house per five acres, was a recent flash point, when a backlash from neighbors prompted the council to ban new recreational pot businesses in some unincorporated areas.

County Councilman Ken Klein said he started working on the legislation to address concerns from planning staff. They had watched craft brewers start up under county rules for home-based businesses, only to see their popularity soar through word of mouth. The resulting influx of customers frequently prompted complaints from neighbors.

Code enforcement officers were unsure how to respond; county code didn’t address the situation.

“There’s some kind of imaginary line that nobody seems to be able to define about when a home-occupation business becomes a bigger business,” Klein said. “There was a lot of confusion out there.”

The new regulations being considered by the council would allow some stand-alone businesses to make and sell alcohol, with tasting rooms where patrons could imbibe. Businesses would be limited to 4,000 square-feet and a maximum of 50 people at a time outdoors.

The regulations also would address parking, lighting, hours of operation and setbacks from neighboring properties. Some amendments would place further restrictions on R-5 land.

Grady Helseth, a residential land developer who lives in the Maltby area, finds the new rules too lax. They made him scratch his head when they first reached the planning commission, where he tries to keep abreast of land-use issues.

“I thought this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of,” he said. “They’re putting a bunch of alcohol purveyors out in the middle of nowhere.”

One of his concerns is allowing drinking establishments, including craft breweries that specialize in high-alcohol beers, in remote areas with little transportation infrastructure other than private vehicles. That, he said, would increase the risk of drunken driving.

Helseth also said he’d like to see more emphasis on studying traffic impacts and notifying neighbors of the craft alcohol businesses. He said environmental restrictions aren’t tight enough, either.

Klein said the rules attempt to regulate businesses that already exist in a gray area, between the county code and state laws enforced by the Liquor and Cannabis Board.

“We want to apply the same regulations across the board in the agricultural areas,” he said. “We want to put some sideboards up for existing businesses and give them a pathway toward success.”

The County Council held its first hearing on the craft-alcohol rules March 9 but postponed taking action at several subsequent meetings. The next hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in council chambers.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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