Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Garrison Creek Winery - An Exercise In Perseverance

Winston Churchill said: "If you are going through hell, keep going."

It has been a five year battle with litigations over permit restrictions, but Michael Murr will finally build his winery.

It was a very controversial proposal, which ended in March 2005, when the Washington State Supreme Court turned down a final appeal by Murr for the winery to be located in Walla Walla County's southeast exclusive agriculture zone. The Garrison Creek Winery will be located at the Les Collines vineyard on Hood Road. While the original conditional-use permit required Murr to apply for a building permit within a year from the permit's approval, he received an extension.

In 2000 Murr asked that the county amend the zoning laws to allow wineries in the exclusive agriculture zone (the minimum lot size is 120 acres) and to allow his design for his proposed two-level, 15,000-sq-ft main floor and 10,000-sq-ft cellar. The current and approved design is much smaller. Opponents argued that it would open the exclusive ag-zone to increased traffic, litter, and changes to their rural view. Supporters countered that the winery with tasting room would be an addition to the local growing wine industry and would create minimal impact to the ag-zone. If I remember correctly, sitting in a few of the planning meetings, it is okay to have a pig farm, dairy, rock quarry, and private air strip in the lovely and exclusive ag zone, but you cannot have a winery. Hmmm -- for esthetic reasons and wind drift, I would pick a winery any day over a pig farm and a rock quarry.

Eventually a conditional-use permit was approved but the county commissioners in their wisdom decided to give Murr limits on the number of events allowed he could have at the winery and in fact that he could only sell wine - not the logo hats, glasses and other souveniers that wine lovers want to buy. Basically, Murr was not allowed to operate his winery like the other wineries in the valley and with conditions. From Walla Walla Superior Court to the Court of Appeals, to make a long five years short, last year the Washington State Supreme Court turned down Murr's final appeal.

I sat in on some of those planning meetings. If anything, it was an education on when people get an idea in their head, especially an idea that is not true, it is hard to get it out of their heads. If you have ever played the game of gossip, it indeed was in practice during those meetings. Some opponents needed to brush up on their homework. They had heard that Murr was going to turn his winery into a outdoor amptheatre and those "wine-os, drunken lovers of satanic rock and roll, would ruin the area!" Then the gossip-mongers claimed Murr was going to turn his winery into a reception hall for weddings and the farmers would have to halt all farm practices during the bridezilla's events. The question needed to be asked, "Why would someone like Murr want to fiddle with a high maintenance ventures like wedding receptions and concerts? He doesn't. All he wanted to do was make wine from vineyards that he co-owned in the exclusive ag-zone.

Then came the problem with litter - more untruths and hysteria. The wine tourists would litter the ever so pastoral area with their empty wine bottles! Umm -- I don't know about you, but how many wine afficianados drink $35-50 bottles of wine in their car and toss the empty out the window? I haven't met one yet! Besides, if you want to complain about litter, the opponents overlooked the constant litter of beer cans from high school kids who had been driving out in that area for decades - DECADES! In fact, to reassure I was correct, I took a drive out in the area the day after one of the planning meetings and viewed the usual display of empties myself -- the usual litter of beer bottles and cardboard beer containers. Then came the drunk driving allegations - those damn wine-os would be out on the roads driving drunk. To nip that comment in the bud, state patrol and local police reports were obtained on DUI arrests during the past wine event weekends when the area was full of wine tourists. No drunk driving arrests of wine-os were reported.

Okay - how about this complaint? The locals who lived in the ag-zone didn't want to hear semi's from California coming in all night long bringing grapes into the winery. HUH? That's right -- HUH? Then came the personal accusations about Michael Murr. The opponents didn't want some "slick Soprano, cigar smoking, three-piece suit from New York City ruining their county." His accusers didn't have a clue Murr was sitting in the audience -- quiet, unassuming in his jeans, jean jacket and boots. Michael, far from being a "slick cigar smoker", a youthful-looking, athletic-minded and a generous man whose roots are strong in Walla Walla. A philanthropist who gives to the Walla Walla community and a graduate of our local high school that he has been so generous to.

In rich historic farm communities, like Walla Walla, change is hard. The older I get, I am not near as flexible as I use to be and I need to stop this. Those things that we love so much I believe that to keep them perpetuating, we have to allow change - growth. Those of us who do not want change have to remember that someday we will die and we cannot smother what we love and we cannot take it with us. I am reminded of a fraternal organization where some of the older members bristled at change and fought tooth and nail to keep their lodge the way it had been for decades. As membership declined they were not willing to bend and make the concessions they needed to procure new and younger members to keep their lodge, the lodge they so loved, alive. Those who tried to make change were met with opposition and often it meant viscious and annonymous letters were sent to their employers and even wives. Ironically, those who fought change and willing to destroy livlihoods, they forgot their ritual promises of brotherhood.

The end result - change didn't happen. The older members, who did not want change, eventually got their way and the younger members gave up -- the lodge did not meet the change gracefully and now membership has dwindled - worse than ever. Many of the opponents of change are now dead and selfishly took what they loved so much with them. I hope to never do that to future generations. I want them to love what I loved.

Winston Churchill said: "To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."

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