Winery gets OK for variance

LaBelle aims to add a ‘culinary village’

AMHERST – The Zoning Board of Adjustment gave LaBelle Winery the vari­ance it needs to expand its complex across Route 101.

The decision was made at a rehearing last week. The next major step is a site plan review by the Planning Board.

Neighbors opposed to the plan had requested the second hearing after the ZBA voted earlier this fall to grant variances for what LaBelle calls an "ar­tisan culinary village": a distillery with a tasting room, an event center, an inn, a restaurant and an office building.

Winery owner Amy La­Belle said this week that she can’t wait to start building the inn and dis­tillery, but that the busi­ness’s pressing need is of­fice space and storage, so she may buy the property and begin renovating the old farmhouse this spring.

The delay caused by the rehearing "really slowed things down," she said.

The ZBA deliberated for more than an hour on Nov. 22, discussing the five tests for a variance, including whether the development will diminish the value of properties in the neigh­borhood and whether it is in the public interest.

Comments were over­whelmingly positive.

"It will make an excellent en­trance to Amherst," board mem­ber Robert Rowe said.

Charlie Vars called the winery plan the "highest and best use" of the 11-acre property. He said most people he talked to in Am­herst are strongly in favor of it.

Vars, who had cast the decid­ing vote to grant the rehearing, said he used the best interests of Amherst as his guide.

"These hearings served as a vehicle to solidify my previous opinion that the plan was thor­oughly vetted and we made no egregious mistakes," he said.

Reed Panasiti, who was tak­ing the place of an absent board member, said he had trouble with his decision because the town’s master plan asks for maintaining the area’s rural character.

Board Chairman Douglas Kirk­wood said if you talked to seven or eight people, they would all give different opinions of what consti­tutes rural character. He noted the area is in the town’s Northern Transitional zone. "Transitional" means "change," he said, and the area will change with the upcom­ing widening of Route 101.

Rowe noted the winery com­plex’s impact wouldn’t be dif­ferent from other uses that are allowed there by variance: churches, hospitals, funeral homes, saw mills and kennels.

The approval comes with two conditions: that 25 acres the landowner wants to give the town be put in conserva­tion, with terms and conditions set by the Planning Board, and that environmental conditions agreed to by the applicant, in­cluding a design that minimizes impervious surfaces, be en­forced.

Before the board deliberated, one neighbor in the Holly Hill area north of the proposed de­velopment talked about noise. But environmental consultant George Bower told the board that noise measurements show "essentially no impact."

In August, the board decided to split LaBelle’s application in two, separating the distillery from the other facilities because of concerns about well water.

An environmental report said a distillery’s water use wouldn’t have a measurable impact on the area’s private residential wells.

The distillery would make ar­tisan vodka, gin and other prod­ucts, and brandy will be made from LaBelle’s wine. The report from StoneHill Environmental said small quantities or no quan­tities of water, other than water to clean equipment, is used in these processes.

The board had previously ap­proved a height variance for the inn-restaurant.