If the Five Hives & Vines partners' original vision is realized, their rural Bulloch County property will feature beehives, berry fields and a facility for making a honey-based alcoholic beverage called mead in a barn-like event center with a tasting room.
The building, proposed to measure about 8,000 square feet but perhaps to be built half that size at first, also would include two suites for bed-and-breakfast lodging. Managing member Eric Van Otteren and his wife Debbie even plan to build a home for themselves on the property, which currently encompasses 26.78 acres, part of the former Smithfield Golf Course, between Georgia Highway 46 and a lake.
Two other couples - the Van Otterens' son and daughter-in-law Zach and Brooke Van Otteren and their friends Wes and Ashley Vanmeter - also are partners in the venture. Reflecting a shared Dutch heritage in those last names, they have organized as limited-liability company Woonerf LLC, with "woonerf" meaning "home zone," or "residential area" in Dutch.
Zach and Brooke Van Otteren are Statesboro residents and have a baby on the way. He is a Georgia Southern student and works for the university in landscaping. Eric and Debbie Van Otteren, who already have two grandchildren in Brunswick, currently live near Atlanta, but plan to move here.
Eric Van Otteren works as the city of Snellville's economic development director. He revealed this when asked to be specific about his occupation. But he was reluctant to name the city, saying he didn't want anyone to think he would mention it to further his private interests.
Without having secured the zoning approvals needed to build Five Hives & Vines, these investors bought the land because it best suited their plans of any tract they had found and they didn't want to lose the opportunity, he said.
"As somebody who counsels businesses, that's not what I'd counsel another business to do, but this piece of property is going to be more than just our business; it's also going to be our residence, our home," Van Otteren said.
From a strictly business angle, a more prudent approach would have been to get a contract to purchase the land contingent on zoning approval.
The Five Hives & Vines plan faces several hurdles. Bulloch County's zoning rules require a minimum 30 acres for a farm winery, so Woonerf LLC had to file a variance request. Additionally, farm wineries are permitted only as conditional uses in agricultural zones, but the golf course was zoned highway-commercial. So the new owners applied to have the property rezoned from HC to Ag-5.
Then the management and supporters of the nonprofit organizations Fostering Bulloch and Broken Shackle Ranch Inc. objected. Fostering Bulloch's 7th Mile Farm borders the property, and Broken Shackle Ranch's local facility is on the other side of Fostering Bulloch's land and shares its director, Chris Yaughn, as a staff member.
After hearings Thursday evening, the appointed Bulloch County Planning and Zoning Commission denied the variance, subject to appeal, and recommended denial of the rezoning and conditional use. Woonerf LLC has an attorney and intends to take these requests on to the elected Bulloch County commissioners, who would hear them Dec. 5.
The Statesboro Herald will report further on the zoning issue. But for now, the Van Otterens and Vanmeters plan to build Bulloch County's first meadery at the described location. A winery, Meinhardt Vineyards, previously operated in the same general area, but went out of business in 2016.
What is mead?
Mead, made from fermented honey, may have been the first alcoholic beverage, although wine also goes back very far, with archeological evidence of both extending back to prehistoric times.
"We are going to open a meadery, so mead would be the product," Van Otteren said. "People want to compare it to wine because it's like honey wine, but it would be like saying that beer is a wine also. You know, in beer the fermented sugar is grains, in wine the fermented sugar is grapes, and in mead the ferment sugar is honey."
He has not made mead or wine commercially before. But he has long kept bees as a hobby in recent years also got started in home brewing, making mead as a way to use honey. Meanwhile, his son Zach, the landscaper, is most interested in the berry production and agricultural side.
The partners propose to grow muscadine grapes, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries and to produce mead varietals flavored with those fruits.
"Muscadine mead is my favorite one," Van Otteren said. "So that's the one I'm working on to get really refined and I enjoy the most, but I know not everybody will enjoy a muscadine mead. So we'll do a traditional mead, a sweet and a dry, as well as those other fruits."
For the fruit-flavored meads, the honey would be used in the first, primary fermentation, and the fruit added for a secondary fermentation.
"Doing it that way, I feel, gives the mead a better fruit flavor," he said.
The partners propose to grow enough berries and muscadines both to flavor the mead and to sell fruit on a you-pick-it basis.
But the 50 or so beehives Van Otteren plans to place on the property would not produce enough honey to make all that mead, he said. So he plans to work with an existing Statesboro-based company, H.L. Franklin's Healthy Honey, to supply the rest.
The barn-like event center would be marketed as a wedding venue, but also could be booked for receptions, festivals and other events.
The partners are considering some alternatives if the Bulloch County commissioners do not approve their requests, including buying more land to exceed the 30-acre minimum or placing the mead-making part of the business in a different location.
Establishing a farm winery also requires county, state and federal licensing.
"Once we get a building built and can open the event venue, the licensing process will take about seven to ninemonths to complete through all those agencies," Van Otteren said. "We have to have a building up before we can start the licensing process."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.