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Rural brewery runs into Oregon zoning problems

The popularity of a remote Oregon brewery has caused it to run into problems with state zoning restrictions for agritourism activities on farmland.

Located along a rural road between Coburg and Harrisburg, Agrarian Ales has operated for nearly six years under an on-farm processing permit from Lane County.

All the hops needed for its “farmhouse brews” are grown on the property, as are about 50 other crops.

Initially, the rural brewery only intended to give out four-ounce samples and sell to-go “growlers” of beer, but it soon became apparent that visitors wanted to linger and imbibe on-site.

“We bring the urban public out to farm country to enjoy the beauty,” said Stephen Harrell, the company’s farm manager. “Our business grew because the public demonstrated there was a need.”

Roughly 95 percent of the company’s revenues are now derived from its tasting room, which consists of tables and benches beneath the brewery’s roof overhang.

To allow people to drink alcohol, Agrarian Ales obtained a permit from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission that stipulated food must also be served at the facility.

The brewery’s evolution into a destination for food, drink and live music has now brought it into conflict with officials from Lane County, who say these activities exceed what’s allowed in the “exclusive farm use” zone.

In late February, the county shut down the brewery’s tasting room — apart from land use issues, officials cited safety problems at the facility because it’s not designed for public occupancy.

Agrarian Ales may not be able to continue operating due to the regulatory action, as its off-site beer sales are still in their “infancy,” Harrell said.

“It threatens the very existence of our business,” he said.

Lane County has issued a statement that it “hopes to find a way to help a beloved and thriving rural business operate” while protecting public safety and meeting Oregon’s zoning rules for farmland.

Another popular rural brewery — the Chatoe Rogue in Polk County — is able to serve food and beer under a special permit for a commercial activity in conjunction with farm use.

That permit was approved because the tasting room promotes hops cultivated on the farm, said Austin McGuigan, director of Polk County’s planning division.

Harrell said his company has tried to obtain such a special permit from Lane County without success. According to the county, the applications submitted by Agrarian Ales were incomplete.

The building code issues present another problem for the brewery.

“If there is no path forward on the land use, it’s pointless for us to upgrade our building,” said Harrell.

Landowners can disagree that a permit application is incomplete and force a county government to make a decision, though the decision typically won’t go in their favor, said Bill Kabeiseman, a land use attorney with the Bateman Seidel law firm.

It’s generally difficult to win approval for food service under a permit for commercial use in conjunction with agriculture, he said.

“There tends to be a strong reaction to people selling prepared food on farmland,” Kabeiseman said. “That’s historically been a problem.”

While it’s permissible to sell farm products on-site as part of a “farm stand,” such structures can’t be used for “banquets, public gatherings and public entertainment” under Lane County code.

Farms stands can sell agricultural products and hold a limited number events per year under Oregon land use law, but they can’t become the equivalent of food-serving establishments with regular schedules, said Jim Johnson, land use specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

“It’s really the next step of having a restaurant or a major tasting facility that’s been problematic in some areas,” said Johnson, noting that increased tourist traffic can impede farm machinery and create other issues.

Wineries and cideries in Oregon have carved out special provisions in Oregon law allowing for additional agritourism activities, said Dave Hunnicutt, executive director of the Oregonians in Action property rights group.

If a county government can’t fit an on-farm business within the parameters of what’s allowable in an EFU zone, it can stop the activity unless the legislature changes the statute, he said.

It is possible breweries may push lawmakers to provide them with similar treatment as their wine- and cider-making counterparts, Hunnicutt said. “I would suspect the next session this issue is going to be dealt with.”