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Winery ordinance seeps through McHenry County Board panel, 3-2

WOODSTOCK – After seven months, the cork came out of the bottle holding up a proposed winery ordinance in committee.

The McHenry County Board Liquor and License Committee on Tuesday voted, 3-2, to recommend creating a liquor license to allow the manufacture of up to 50,000 gallons of wine a year and to allow on-site tastings.

Chairman John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, predicted a long meeting over the divisive issue, going so far as to pass around a Jimmy John's lunch menu, but the committee took less than a half-hour to settle the matter, with little discussion.

A three-member majority forced the issue after Hammerand had said last week that he again intended to discuss liquor ordinance changes and not pursue a vote. Blue Star Vineyard owners Jeff and Sue Pankow first requested the classification in September so they can make wine on their land southeast of Hebron.

Member Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, said Friday that she intended to bring up the matter for a vote because the majority of the five-member committee backed such a classification. She said she was happy the meeting went well.

"I think the chairman realized he didn't have the votes and it wasn't worth fighting anymore," Wheeler said.

Wheeler, John Jung, R-Woodstock, and Robert Bless, R-Fox River Grove, voted "yes." Hammerand and Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, voted "no." The full County Board could approve the changes as soon as Tuesday if they waive the 30-day review of new and altered county ordinances.

Hammerand has objected to the ordinance as written, saying it encourages spot zoning and lacks controls that exist on bars and taverns. He also argued that fortified wines, such as port, can pack an alcoholic wallop on par with a mixed drink.

"I believe we're selling liquor by the glass and we're giving [the winery] the same hours as a tavern," Hammerand said. "What's the difference from a tavern as far as the end user is concerned?"

The same 3-2 majority also removed from the ordinance language, introduced by Hammerand, that would require half of a winery's grapes to come from McHenry County vineyards. The Pankows had told the committee that not only would limit their ability to shop around, it also would be a major hardship should bad weather, a freeze or insects hit local growers that they would be forced to use.

Wheeler and Jung had pointed to the local-grapes provision, and the time the Pankows' request has taken, as attempts by Hammerand to derail the proposal. Hammerand denied that, and said his concern has been to prevent abuses of the law and unintended consequences.

Jeff Pankow said he was relieved with Tuesday's vote, pending full County Board approval. The Pankows' next step is to apply for a conditional-use permit through the Zoning Board of Appeals, because wineries are not currently a listed use in A-1 agricultural zoning.

"I think this could have gone a lot quicker. It dragged on far longer than it should have," Jeff Pankow said.

But Pankow said he appreciated the fact that opponents on Tuesday did not discuss issues of zoning, traffic and other concerns not germane to the committee's job of upholding the liquor ordinance. Wheeler, Jung and others had attributed the drawn-out proceedings in part to the committee overstepping its bounds.

"I appreciate that the liquor committee put more of a focus on what the ordinance should say and let zoning issues be handled [by the zoning board]," Pankow said.

The Pankows said they hope to be ready to bottle a small batch of wine this year. They have 5 acres of grapes and said they to double that to 10 acres.

The County Board will vote on the changes at its May 15 meeting if the 30-day review is not waived.

What it means / What's next

The McHenry County Board Liquor and License Committee voted Tuesday, 3-2, to create a new liquor license for wineries. Another 3-2 vote eliminated a language that said half of a winery's grapes have to be grown in McHenry County.

Voting "yes" were committee members Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake; Robert Bless, R-Fox River Grove; and John Jung, R-Woodstock. Voting "no" were committee Chairman John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake; and Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard.

The full County Board still must vote on the proposed ordinance language. That could happen as soon as next Tuesday, if a 30-day ordinance review rule is waived, and May 15 if it is not.

Blue Star Vineyards, which first asked for such a license back in September, now must go before the Zoning Board of Appeals to get a conditional-use permit to make wine on its property southeast of Hebron.

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