Is a Local Winery a Farm?

Seven Bridges Road winery seeks agricultural board approval; Owner says there will only be two or three visitors a day.

After two informal meetings with the town to get feedback on plans to add features to his property, the owner of a 15-acre vineyard along Seven Bridges Road, Little Silver, has turned to the county for an okay instead.

Richard DeBlasi, who has owned the property at 647 Seven Bridges Road for more than 30 years, is attempting to qualify the site as a commercial farm under the Right to Farm Act and needs approval from the county agricultural board, according to Little Silver Mayor Robert C. Neff, Jr.

Famland assessed properties do not pay standard taxes, but a farmland assessment, which is substantially lower than municipal taxes. In order to qualify for farmland assessment, a property owner must own a minimum of five acres and show proof of active farming, including things such as honey harvesting, Christmas tree and firewood sales.

Rocker Bon Jovi's bee hives on his Navesink River estate have come under scrutiny as have former Middletown Planning Board Chairwoman and philanthropist Judith Stanely's honeybee farm and Bruce Springsteen's assessment to farm his Colts Neck estate.

Former Senator Ellen Karcher also came under attack in 2007 when running for re-election when it came to light that she got the special assessment for selling Christmas trees from her extensive property.

State law that requires owners of properties a minimum of five acres to sell a minimum of $500 worth of agricultural products in order to qualify for the tax break.

If the vineyard qualifies, DeBlasi would be able to avoid site plan approval by the Little Silver Planning Board, and seek approval directly from the agricultural board to have a wine tasting and small retail facility at the site, Neff said. DeBlasi's proposal is to manufacture wine in an existing, detached multi-car garage, and hold tastings there, he added.

"The applicant's counsel tells us that he would expect two to three visitors a day, and that no parties, weddings or the like, would be held there," said Neff.

Neff said neighbors have expressed concern about possible increased traffic and the proximity of the proposed winery to Point Road School.

When DeBlasi appeared before the council at a July workshop meeting, he was questioned by an attorney representing another borough resident, who said his client "had concerns" about the proposed additions to the site.

"We're also concerned that the applicant has chosen this approach, rather than seeking a zoning variance and site plan approval from Little Silver," said the mayor. "In fact, he specifically asks for exemption from the municipal site plan process."

Neff said the council has requested the county hold any upcoming hearings in Little Silver rather than Freehold "so that our residents have the best opportunity to be heard."


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