CHELAN — Karma Vineyard’s success is bubbling over and some neighbors of the Lake Chelan winery and champagne maker are not happy about it.
Karma’s success is largely built on its French-method champagne, much of which it sells at weddings held at the winery and 14 acres of vineyard at 1681 South Lakeshore Road.
More than 60 people showed up for a Chelan County conditional use permit March 7 before Hearing Examiner Andrew Kottkamp. Winery owners Julie and Bret Pittsinger want an update of the winery’s permit to allow food service and to clarify limits on the number of people allowed on the property during events. The county received 32 letters in support of the winery and 15 opposing the amendment, with several others added at the hearing.
Strict limits on gathering size could cause the winery to cancel a season of booked wedding events and lose tens of thousands of dollars, the Pittsingers said.
Most at the hearing supported the winery. Several testified that Lake Chelan’s dozen or so wineries and the tourism dollars they contribute are important to the economic future of the valley. Others lauded the Pittsingers for closely following county regulations and being sensitive to the surrounding community.
A much smaller group of nearby winery neighbors disputed that, however, with four people testifying that winery events created occasional loud noise and traffic not fitting with a residential area.
The conflict speaks to Lake Chelan Valley’s ongoing transition from a fruit producing economy to a diversified economy, said Guy Evans, secretary-treasurer of Lake Chelan Wine Growers Association and winemaker for Tunnel Hill Winery owned by his family in Chelan.
“We have speed sprayers, cherry cannons, clanking ladders and now jet skis, motor boats and loud music. There’s a lot of noise here. I think the Pittsingers are willing to mitigate their share. I want to see their business survive and see the industry here thrive,” he said at the hearing.
The combination of fine food and fine wine is key to wine tourism in the region, testified Dr. Bob Jankelson, owner of nearby Tsillan Cellars, which also hosts weddings and has a restaurant. His winery also holds outdoor music events. Karma does not.
“The future of wine is the experience of wine and food,” he said. “We have to have wine tourism if we are to compete with Yakima and Walla Walla.”
Buell Hawkins, former Chelan County Commissioner and charter member of Karma Winery’s wine club, testified that wineries offer real hope for the Lake Chelan Valley’s economic future. He noted that while he was a commissioner, the county approved regulations to preserve agricultural land and help farmers survive by allowing businesses to sell value-added products, including wine and food.
Those rules were passed in 2008 after similar land use conflicts involving Blueberry Hills Farm in Manson and Saint Laurent Estate Winery in Malaga, Hawkins said. The Pittsingers said they thought passage of those rules allowed them to start a restaurant and hold larger weddings and only learned recently they had to amend their original conditional use permit.
“Land use decisions are always controversial. Some want things to stay the same. Others want to create the best value for their land. There always has to be compromise,” Hawkins said after the hearing.
Karma’s two most outspoken opponents said they’re not against wineries in general, but don’t appreciate having one in their back yard. Robert Peterson said he operates a vineyard next to Karma’s and sells his grapes to local wineries. He sells wines in his Seattle restaurant.
“The difference is that this winery is next to my home,” said Peterson, who lives across Lakeshore Road from the winery. He testified that the noise from 150 people drinking at night can be very loud. Parties often go on much later than hours stipulated in the winery’s permit, he said, and there are more amplified events than the Pittsingers claim.
“All the conditions of the original conditional use permit have been ignored,” Peterson said in asking Kottcamp to put off approval of the amendments.
Clair Jenkins, who lives on Minneapolis Beach, a residential area close to the winery, said he doesn’t dispute most of the good things said about the winery and its operation.
“I would support it if I didn’t live in the neighborhood. The problem is noise,” said Jenkins, a Tacoma developer and Lake Chelan resident since 1997. He said he doesn’t trust the winery to live up to new permit conditions that would encourage its growth.
Julie Pittsinger said a few neighbors have fought the winery since she revealed plans to build in 2005. The Pittsingers own 72 acres around the winery, 14 acres of which are planted in vineyard. Most events that include music are held underground and can’t be heard outside. Only one outside event with amplified music is held each year, she said, on Memorial Day when the winery releases its latest champagne vintage. Larger weddings are held on two patios above ground, but the ceremonies are generally short and don’t include amplified music. She said weddings account for about 20 percent of the winery’s business and are crucial to future wine sales. The winery is closed during winter months.
“We’ve tried to create a nice quiet business and are just trying to get up to code,” she said. “We’ve tried to follow all the rules.”
Kottkamp said he would make his decision within 10 working days of the hearing, which would be March 21.
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151