Remember my first blog post when I mentioned our two year search process and all the hurdles we overcame, several properties under contract, a threatened lawsuit etc.? I said it was a long story but because of some deja vu last week I thought I’d share the details before I relay what happened to bring back all these memories.
We were about a year into the property search in June 2019 when we fell in love with a parcel in Ellijay and put in an offer. Ellijay has some different rules for wineries in that they always have to ask permission to operate and get written approval from the planning committee and then board of commissioners if they wish to exist. We knew this and so we made our offer contingent upon these approvals and with an incredibly long due diligence to give us time to get on the calendar for a “hearing” with the planning committee.
Once one gets on the calendar, the county puts a sign on the property so all the neighbors can see and have a chance to attend the hearing and contest if they wish. We had several neighbors tell us they were happy to hear of a farm winery coming to the area but a few days before our meeting on a call to planning regarding another topic, we asked if they had any idea if we would be opposed by anyone at the upcoming hearing. In fact, yes, they said, there was one unhappy neighbor who would be in attendance.
In the weeks and month leading up to our meeting we made really great friends with the local wineries in Ellijay so on the day of our hearing, they all came out to support us and put in good words for us. “Adopting” us young, novice farmers in this way was incredibly kind and speaks volumes of the local wine community.
We made our case and explained our vision for the farm as did others who spoke on our behalf. Then it was the turn of the opposition. We watched as a future neighbor heaved a several hundred page document up to the podium and began to educate everyone on the dangers of drunk drivers and the extremely “dangerous” road the property was located on. Never mind that there was already a vineyard on that same road a few miles down and across the border in a different county. He vehemently made his case and sat down next to his attorney.
The planning department conceded that despite his concern there was nothing legally (a church, school etc) to block a winery from existing on an agriculture zoned parcel and approved our application to be sent through to the next step: the commissioners meeting.
Our neighbor stormed out with an angry “I’m going to sue you and the county”.
We were relieved about our approval but found it difficult to celebrate with his threats looming over us. Legally we saw no grounds for a lawsuit, we had done nothing wrong, nor could we be sued as “future owners” of the property in question. We received several suspicious and somewhat threatening phone calls over the course of the next month, and so did the seller of our property, from an aggressive “reporter” with no voicemail set up…we believe it was our neighbor. Stubbornly undaunted, we went into meeting number two a month later, better prepared with data to back up our points and argue our case. The morning arrived and we packed in to a small conference room with 20 other people and one very confident lawyer and waited our turn to discuss. When our property finally came up for discussion, the commissioners, without seeking any response or input from us, announced in not so many words, that due to the threats from the lawyer and the giant document in their hands, they were going to defer a response and send the case back to the planning department for a second review. Essentially, we had to start the process all over again which was going to be impossible without further extending our due diligence by months and without hiring our own lawyer.
Ultimately, we decided if this neighbor was trouble before we owned the property and even set things in motion, imagine how impossible it would’ve been to live next to him…being blocked at every turn. It made for a frustrating future. We lost our earnest money of course, and time, but made plenty of friends in the process and learned a ton. An article was even written about us in the Ellijay local paper…not by the same “reporter”. That mystery remains unsolved.
After this experience, sadly, we wrote off Gilmer county…we could not go through another 2 month long approval processes should we find another property. It was too time consuming and too fraught with uncertainty. Fast forward to us continuing our search in Cleveland/Dahlonega a year later and finding the perfect property in a county where wineries are a permitted use in land zoned agriculture, no permission needed! We dotted our Ts and crossed our I’s meeting with the planning department just to confirm we were welcome and allowed to do what we wanted and closed on the property full of confidence and assurance that all would be well.
Two and a half months later and here we are, having met many of our kind neighbors who all somehow found out we were starting a winery, after having told no one, not our realtor, the sellers, no one except the planning department. All have expressed interest and general excitement about the farm winery.
A neighbor in a Spectrum internet truck drove down our driveway onto our property and introduced himself, asked about our plans, actually told us he knew, as we don’t volunteer this, and said he was opposed. He has a daughter, who bicycles in the neighborhood, and is concerned about drunk drivers….. as is any human. We kindly explained that we are not a bar, we will not be open late, we want to be good neighbors, responsible, respectful; we are a family farm. None of that seemed to matter. He said he was doing his research (assumingly to oppose us, though I’m not sure he can) and asked if there was a way we could make the entrance to our winery on the main road rather than the road into the neighborhood which, we told him, unfortunately we could not because our property does not reach that road. We left it with, please know you’re welcome here anytime, no hard feelings, and him saying he would be opposed “to the end”. We are trying so hard to remain positive but of course we are crushed that anyone would misunderstand our intentions or assume they are negligent or insensitive, or that anyone would not welcome us to the neighborhood and want to obstruct this dream out of fear.
Prayers and support are much appreciated. We are hoping we won’t need a lawyer but it may come to that. We won’t let this one go without a fight.