‘Dry’ Cache county considers allowing wineries

Logan • Despite several council members concerned that it could increase rates of alcohol abuse and set the county down a “slippery slope,” a proposed change that would allow wineries in unincorporated areas of Cache County, currently “dry,” has received overwhelming public support.

The alcohol ordinance has not been changed in more than 30 years, but several local farms approached the council in 2018 to propose changes to allow for wine and hard cider production. Brenda and Keith Meikle, who own The Vineyards at Mt. Naomi Farms near Hyde Park, were among them.

“This ordinance is about agriculture, 100%,” Keith said to the council at Tuesday’s public hearing. “That’s all this is about — preserving agriculture. That’s the only reason we brought this to the county, ever, was to say we need a way to produce something more valuable on our farm because our hay and wheat is losing to Visionary Homes and all the other developers.”

In her public outreach looking for comments from a variety of groups and areas of constituents, Cache County Council’s Chair Gina Worthen said she has “not heard one person” opposed to changes in county code.

While the council acknowledged the importance of a thriving economy — with newly-appointed Cache County Executive David Zook highlighting boosting revenue as one of his goals for 2021 — there was pushback from several local leaders in the meeting, including Zook and Council Member Gordon Zilles, on the potential side effects of “opening the door” to more alcohol and therefore more alcohol abuse in the county.

“Most of the people here are talking about restriction being bad, and I can accept the will of people if that’s what they want,” Zilles said. “But I’ve just laid caution to the wind, that you can see, as we are going forth with this, that we are moving our way to the way the world is. And I’m not sure I want to be involved that much in that portion of the world.”

John Luthy, the chief civil deputy county attorney, also recommended caution, because changing the ordinance to allow for a winery may lead to other businesses requesting changes to allow for growing hops and brewing beer, or using their crops for alcohol production in a distillery, and it would be hard for the council to deny one type of agritourism while accepting another.

“Alcohol can be a public safety and public health issue, and our office is responsible for prosecuting crimes in the county” that can be tied to alcohol abuse, Luthy told The Herald Journal, “and does want the council to be mindful and careful as they consider whether to adopt laws that could potentially increase alcohol consumption and use in the county.”

Both Zilles and Zook — the two who were most vocal in urging caution — used the dangers of alcoholism as arguments against the ordinance. However, they both also acknowledged with the state liquor store operating in Logan and beer being sold in convenience and grocery stores, alcohol is already present in the community.

“I think that everyone recognizes that wine tastings associated with wine manufacturing facilities are not going to be the source of alcoholism,” Luthy said. “But if the county goes from not allowing any wine manufacturing or alcohol sales in the unincorporated counties … there’s a slippery-slope potential that you then begin opening the door to other things and changing the culture in the county overall, which could lead to increased alcohol consumption.”

Council Member Paul Borup argued if a winery was allowed, it would serve both the council’s goal of “keeping the country, country, and the city, city,” while limiting the chances of alcoholism in the area.

“These are two completely separate issues we’re talking about,” Borup said. “Having a winery isn’t going to increase alcoholism. Alcoholics could go down to the State Liquor Store and bring it into their house, so you’d have alcohol in that property, whether it was grapes or a bunch of townhomes.”

Though Zilles raised concerns over the profitability of alcohol production leading to fewer farmers growing traditional crops, Borup argued the ordinance has no effect on the decline of hay or wheat.

“If we don’t do it, let’s not pretend it’s going to be a wheat field in 10 years,” he said. “It’s going to be a subdivision. This is a way for us to allow the landowners to have control of their destiny, besides selling out to a developer.”

And for the Meikles, a decision is long overdue.

“I pray there is some impetus on this, because time is starting to run out on farms like mine,” Keith said at the meeting.

The problem was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Keith said, and “the development pressure on our farm has gone ballistic.”

Though personally cautious on the issue, even Zilles acknowledged the majority of the community is in support of allowing wineries and hard cideries, especially as it relates to agritourism.

No official decision has been made, but civil attorneys are already working on language changes to the code to bring it into compliance with the state’s process of granting licensure before the council holds a vote on the proposed ordinance.

The council is expected to revisit the issue on Feb. 26, and if Ordinance 2021-05 passes, a new land use proposal will go before planning and zoning to determine where in the county such businesses could be and what criteria they would have to comply with.