Court deals a blow to Portsmouth vineyard's wedding plans
PORTSMOUTH — A Newport Superior Court Judge has upheld a decision by the Portsmouth Zoning Board of Review denying Greenvale Vineyards a permit to host weddings, receptions, corporate functions, and banquets on its property off Wapping Road in south Portsmouth.
In a decision filed Sept. 5, Judge Stephen P. Nugent agreed with the zoning board that those activities aren't found on a list of permitted special uses in the town zoning code.
Instead, the judge wrote, wedding receptions, corporate functions and banquets are more like a use that is prohibited in R-40 residential zones — an eating establishment.
"Certainly we are disappointed by the decision," said Nancy Parker Wilson, the vineyard's general manager and part owner. She said no decision on any appeal or next step has been made.
The ruling does not, she added, address the vineyard's contention that it should be allowed to host such activities under Rhode Island's Right to Farm Act.
It was under the provisions of that act that the vineyard initially sought permission to conduct the additional activities, Ms. Parker Wilson said, "and that remains a question that has not been answered."
Among other things, the Right to Farm act states that "the mixed-use of farms and farmlands for other forms of enterprise is hereby recognized as a valuable and viable means of contributing to the preservation of agriculture."
The vineyard's website still promotes its rental for such occasions — "Whether it is a wedding, rehearsal dinner, anniversary or employee thank you, Greenvale is one of the most beautiful spots on Aquidneck Island for any celebration."
After several neighbors objected to the property's use for wedding receptions (other neighbors have been supportive), town officials said that the vineyard would need a special use permit to continue such activities.
The vineyard applied for a permit, contending that, as an "outdoor recreational facility" it ought to qualify.
The town's zoning board held well-attended hearings in 2010 and wound up denying the special use permit by a 3-2 vote.
Supporters, among them Louis Escobar, whose Portsmouth dairy farm runs a corn 'maize' and other activities to help make ends meet, said that farms are vanishing and need to find other revenue sources to survive. Others said that Greenvale had been hosting weddings for years without problems.
Objectors argued that a wedding reception business has nothing to do with farming and voiced concerns about safety, the serving of alcohol, noise and traffic in that quiet residential area.
During those hearings, Ms. Parker Wilson said that Greenvale “runs tours and allows picnics and other recreational activities on its land” and also engages in activities such as “passive recreation, educational programs and music,” which she argued are similar to activities conducted at a country club, golf, swimming, tennis, or “other outdoor recreational facility”.
Conflicting testimony was also taken by two real estate experts.
Peter M. Scotti, a real estate broker and appraiser, testified on behalf of the vineyard, describing recreation as “anything other than work ... any activity one performs during leisure time.‟ He included weddings, proms, and corporate functions as social and recreational uses.
The objectors countered with real estate consultant Paul Hogan. He testified that the activities proposed by Greenvale don't match the code's view of recreational activities which “combine(s) social activity with physical activity” but more closely resemble those of "an eating place," a service industry not allowed in R40 residential areas such as the land where Greenvale is located.
In its split decision, the zoning board agreed, stating that “weddings are social, not recreational events," and that wedding receptions and the like do better match the description of what happens at an "eating place."
“Adding occasional weddings, receptions, corporate functions, banquets and the like will neither make the farm an outdoor recreational facility, a country club, or any other use listed" in the code," the board majority concluded. "Hiking and enjoying the scenery bear little relation to the activities set forth in the ptition: weddings, receptions, corporate functions, banquets ..."
Judge Nugent found no reason to overturn that decision, writing, "this Court affirms the decision of the Board to dismiss Greenvale's petition in light of the factual determination by the Board that the proposed use did not fit within the enumerated list of specially permitted uses and that the proposed use was most similar to a use prohibited in an R-40 zone."
"I was bemused by this," Ms. Parker Wilson said last week of the argument that the activities resemble those of an "eating place." "We don't even have a stove top or an oven here." Any food served at receptions, she said, has been supplied by caterers.
She said she hopes the question is eventually addressed in the context of 'right to farm."
"We are a farm and what we do is very labor intensive and expensive. The only way and most others like us survive these days is as an agrotourism business ... I do think that in general Portsmouth supports and appreciates its farms and wants to see them survive."