This couple retreated to the Jersey Shore to open Ocean City Winery. What could go wrong?
UPPER TOWNSHIP, NJ — Mike and Robin Halpern had a vision for retirement. Robin knew his way around a vineyard. Mike could run a business. They bought a Christmas tree farm in Cape May County, met the neighbors, went from trees to grapes.
Two miles as the drone flies from Ocean City, the former Trop’s Tree Farm on Bayaire Road would be renamed ‘Ocean City Winery’, complete with vineyards and an 80-seat tasting room, which is sure to turn heads – and cars – off the Garden State Parkway. The real Ocean City is a dry city.
They took legal action to designate the 5-acre property as a commercial farm under New Jersey’s right to farm laws. It was already preserved land, continuously cultivated since 1970, with development rights sold to the county by the previous owner for $216,132 in 2005.
Three years ago the Halperns left Collingswood to live full-time on the farm near Beesley’s Point that they bought in 2005 for $333,000. They built a pole barn.
“I know it sounds like one of those great retirement stories,” said Halpern, 65, who ran a consulting firm for years. “But this is not the case.”
“We assumed he was some retired gentleman-farmer type,” is how Brian Edwards, owner of the Bashful Banana Bakery & Cafe in Ocean City, put it the other day. He is one of two dozen neighbors who oppose the Halperns. “I’m just going to bottle some wine.”
The Halperns say their intentions have always been known. They were already growing grapes on a preserved farm in Cumberland County at a business Mike, a former Collingswood volunteer firefighter, called Engine One Vineyards.
They initially continued to run the tree farm, but talked about a future of grapes and wine, and an 80-seat tasting room, on the 5.27-acre property off Route 9 which partly runs along the rear property lines of the neighbours.
“It has always been our very public intention to open a small winery and tasting room, and we completed our commercial barn, with required inspections and certificate of occupancy, in 2018,” Halpern wrote in an email. e-mail with the subject “Agricultural problems in the high cantons.
Still, some neighbors grew suspicious, while others continued to enjoy the view of the vineyards from their terraces. There was alarm when Halpern appeared in the vineyards lining their backyards in hazmat protective gear, spraying pesticides, including the chemical paraquat, on rows of Cuyahoga and Vidal (white) vines and Cabernet Sauvignon and Chambourcin (red).
Halpern says he’s required to dress up, always warns neighbors, and says the amount of pesticides he uses is within allowable limits.
But the neighbors are not convinced. “I have to get everyone in, close the windows, turn on the air conditioning, get the kids out of the garden,” says John Guregiel. “He hampers my freedom to live my life.”
At the farm the other day, an oddly shaped parcel of land that stretches from Route 9 almost to the Garden State Parkway, including behind the backyards of several neighbors, Halpern continued to advocate for his cellar. It keeps a walking path through the property for neighbors on three sides.
He’s exasperated that he’s running into so much opposition, with everyone under lawyers, including the township.
He brought the conversation back to the vines themselves, which were undergoing winter pruning. He says they will produce 6-7 tons of grapes per year, which will yield up to 5,000 bottles of wine.
“These are magnificent grapes,” he said.
With his own winery unlikely for this season, he will sell the harvest to other South Jersey wineries. “New Jersey fruit is worth an awful lot of money,” he said.
The Halperns believe the neighbors’ concerns are exaggerated and point out that they have tried to address the fears by revising and reducing their general plans.
Since the county has designated the land as a commercial farm, the site-specific plan is now before the county agricultural board for approval, a process that irritates neighbors as it would supersede any zoning or planning laws in the township. . It is unclear when the council will consider the request.
With the revisions, the winery would only be open during the day, with the longest hours from May to September, between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. There would be no outside music or sound amplification. The Halperns changed the entrance from Bayaire Road to Route 9, promised additional buffer planting, and said all other accesses would be closed to discourage parking on neighborhood streets.
They agreed that they would not do weddings, festivals or private reservations of the farm, and would not ask to change any of these restrictions for at least three years from opening. They pointed out that the state’s farm laws allow for “direct-to-farm marketing,” such as an on-farm stand, but also a winery, and agricultural-related educational activities, including wine tastings and wineries. seminars on food and wine pairings.
They said they doubted the winery would frequently draw a capacity crowd. “Who would give up a good day at the beach to go to a winery?” asked Robin, a retired nurse.
According to their plan, the Halperns’ post barn would be transformed into a tasting room and wine production facility, which would use processing grapes from its largest vineyard in Cumberland County.
The Halperns feel like they’ve upheld the law, made many concessions, and are still opposed for what they and others believe to be a city amenity and pastoral backdrop.
Neighbor TJ Laury, who has a plumbing and electrical business in Ocean City, says he and his wife moved in already knowing the plans for the basement. They stay away from the dispute, but say, “I understand it. People don’t want people drinking in the neighborhood. The vineyards themselves, he says, are “pretty to look at.”
Just up Route 9 is the Tuckahoe Inn, now at a cul-de-sac where the old Route 9 bridge used to be, and the sprawling site of the former BL England power station, recently sold to developers considering a hotel, retail, restaurant and marina. , once a $13 million cleanup is complete.
But neighbors say Highway 9 is already packed with traffic in the summer, and they can feel the push from skyrocketing property prices and booming barrier island summer tourists. They envision lots of parking and U-turns in their cul-de-sac by GPS-tracking vineyard seekers.
Joe Falls, a neighbor of Bayaire Road, predicted “more people coming to this area”, in his comments to the Upper Township Committee at a November 22 meeting. “Definitely with the people of Pennsylvania,” he said, laughing. “You know who occupies Ocean City. You know what’s going on.
Other neighbors feared an “entertainment center” or a rowdy drinking establishment posing as a distinguished winery. They all miss the forest farm.
“The tree farm was idyllic,” neighbor Karolann Kemenosh told the upper township committee at that November meeting, which featured nearly an hour of complaints from neighbors. “It was absolutely magical to be next to a tree farm.”
Even with the revisions, the basement plan seems less than ideal for these neighbors in this modest home community. A house is already being converted into an AirBnB. They usually don’t notice the noise from the walk.
They hired a lawyer, Richard King, to navigate the complicated laws that govern such property and give oversight to the county’s agricultural development board, not the city’s zoning or planing board.
Neighbors wonder if the farm is really 5 acres and say it shouldn’t be considered a working farm. They argue that there are insufficient setbacks and buffer zones between residences, that the site is unsuitable for the proposed winery, and that it violates local zoning laws.
“Allowing a tree farm to turn into a winery would endanger the health and safety of residents, and is too big of a departure from zoning law and the township master plan,” read their complaints.
The Upper Township itself denied Halpern’s request that the Township designate the property as farmland for assessment and taxation purposes, under the Farmland Assessment Act of 1964. He hired his own attorney, Frank Corrado, who noted that the township also opposes the winery plan. .
But Colin Bell, the Halperns’ attorney, says the Ocean City Winery (a name the Halperns say they’re willing to do without) is exactly the kind of small-scale farming operation envisioned by the state, if not by the neighbors.
“I think the impact will be much less than people think,” said Bell, who previously successfully won the right to open Willow Creek Winery over West Cape May’s objections. “If you have a house overlooking a vineyard and a winery, it probably helps your values, without hurting them.”
He said the proposed winery was unlikely to entail the “noisy crowd” of Shore revelers feared by neighbors.
“People could have a glass of wine and walk through the grapes, yes,” Bell said. “That’s what they want you to do. This is what the State of New Jersey has called good farm management practice.