Brewery Ardennes, a Belgian-inspired craft brewery and kitchen, would like to offer patrons a glass of wine with live music or to host a brunch for a group outdoors. Red Jacket Orchards also would like the opportunity to expand the customer experience.
To do so, however, these businesses and other agritourism and agribusiness companies in the town of Geneva need changes to Section 165-3 of the Geneva Town Zoning Code. The code amendment would allow for farm tours, outdoor music, and private and public events, among other offerings.
Some residents worry this will harm their quality of life—more than a 100 people have signed a petition, asking the board to vote against the amendment. At a recent board meeting, a resident urged the board to “listen to the people that voted you into your positions,” minutes from a May 10 town board meeting show.
The business faction and residents in favor have their own online petition, administered by a third party. As of May 24, that petition had 251 signatures.
The vote, after public hearings, was originally planned for May 10. It was postponed to May 26.
Robert McCarthy, a councilmember and chairman of the town’s economic development committee, believes code changes are needed.
“It is necessary because the wineries and breweries in the town of Geneva are put at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis their competitors along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail by not allowing them to host events and provide music,” says McCarthy, who notes that he is one of five on the council and each member might view the issue differently. “Most all other wineries and breweries hold events from time to time and offer music for their customers’ enjoyment.”
For Stacey Edinger, co-founder and head of hospitality at Ardennes, the ability to hold events now and then would help the brewery, taproom and kitchen compete on a level playing field. Cornell University alums Edinger and her husband, Derek, opened the brewery a year ago, during the pandemic.
“Everyone is looking for different ways to be competitive,” Edinger says. “The town of Geneva overall is very business-friendly. They want to grow and grow in a thoughtful way … for the economy and that’s really important. But there are some existing conditions in the zoning that haven’t been touched in quite some time.”
Red Jacket owner, president and CEO Brian Nicholson says when people come to the Finger Lakes, they’re looking for an experience.
“And in agriculture, as in a lot of businesses, the challenges of running a business have only gotten higher, and the costs have only gotten greater,” he says. “So, it’s really important that we have the tools available to cultivate long-term consumers and visitors. And we want to encourage repeat visits.”
Zoning changes have been approved in the past, Edinger notes. Certain agritourism businesses along Route 14 with lake views are part of the Lakeview District, for example, which allows for entertainment and events.
“The town didn’t have the need, I guess, to have this language be applicable to more businesses at the time, but now they do,” Edinger says. “Everybody’s use case is a little different, right? … You don’t want all these special-use permits hanging out there because it’s administratively a pain. The bigger goal is, how can we strike a balance between everyone? That’s where we are right now.”
As a community member, Nicholson, who like Edinger understands the need for balance, views these changes to the zoning code as an enrichment opportunity. A portion of Red Jacket’s property lies in a commercial zone; with amended zoning, Nicholson says, the business could explore immersive experiences for customers.
“I think the effort that’s going on in Geneva seems to be a well-balanced approach, where you see a community working with business to continue to allow policies to develop, not just be static, but develop and evolve for all to benefit,” he says.
The proposed amendment language does have some restrictions aimed at addressing residents’ concerns. Hours of operation for agricultural commerce and ag tourism events need to be strictly controlled and confined to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., for example. In addition, noise level must not exceed 75 decibels, including traffic-related noises or electronically amplified live music or electronically reproduced noise that projects beyond the property line. Also, no more than three outside events a week, including overflow from permitted indoor occupancy, are allowed.
“This law also sets penalties for violations of these rules at $500 per day,” McCarthy says. “So, I think we have achieved a balanced approach of allowing our wineries and breweries to compete with similar businesses along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, local law 3, and protecting resident’s rights, local law 4.”
Agriculture is the largest land use in the town of Geneva, McCarthy says. It is also one of the state’s growing sectors and part of its economic strategy. The Grow-NY region includes Geneva.
“Agriculture, food and beverage industries always have been an incredibly important part of our local economy,” says Catharine Young, executive director of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture, Cornell AgriTech. “Agritourism is a way to not only celebrate our heritage, but to also bring new economic growth and family-friendly recreational opportunities to our area.”
Balancing community priorities with business needs is a complex task. Local land-use rules, when carefully designed and implemented, can be an effective tool for progress, experts say.
“Where it is most successful, zoning is written in a way that compliments the planning goals of communities and addresses the needs of residents and businesses in the municipality,” a state introduction on zoning states.
Change is tough, however. Though businesses are expected to meet requirements to operate—producing traffic studies and the like—community members, especially in agricultural locales, like the idea of a quiet, peaceful neighborhood, Edinger says. The Edingers live on the Ardennes property.
“So, I think it’s in all of our mutual interests, as a resident as well as a business owner, that there’s a balance,” Edinger says.