Like many zoning disputes, the one over the proposed Five Hives & Vines meadery involves neighbors with conflicting wishes. But in the case of Five Hives & Vines, the neighbors are unusual – a family agritourism partnership on one side and two charity organizations on the other.
Earlier this month, the appointed Planning and Zoning Commission denied a variance request from Five Hives and recommended denial of a zoning change and conditional use. The matter goes to the elected Bulloch County Board of Commissioners at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Three married couples are partners in the venture to establish the combination berry farm and muscadine vineyard, mead-making facility, apiary and venue for weddings and other events. Mead is an alcoholic beverage similar to wine but made primarily from honey.
The partners established a limited liability company, Woonerf LLC, which purchased the site between Georgia Highway 46 and Kennedy Pond. They had a Statesboro lawyer, Chris Gohagan, help present their plan to the Bulloch County Planning and Zoning Commission in a hearing Nov. 9.
“I believe it is deserving of approval because it’s a good plan, it’s got a good location, and it’s got owners with good intentions,” Gohagan told the board.
A portion of the former Smithfield Golf Course, the almost 27-acre tract with its gentle hills and lakefront views appealed to the partners as a marketable venue for events, said Five Hives & Vines LLC managing member Eric Van Otteren. It also offers direct access from Highway 46 and is not far from Interstate 16, he noted.
He and his wife Debbie Van Otteren, who currently live in the Atlanta area, also plan to build a home at the site and move there. Their son and daughter-in-law Zach and Brooke Van Otteren are already Bulloch County residents, and their friends Wes and Ashley Vanmeter are the other partners in the project.
Other than the Van Otterens’ home, the one proposed major building on the property would be the barn-like event center, which also would contain the mead production equipment and tasting room. The building would include two suites for bed-and-breakfast lodging.
On the other side, Fostering Bulloch, the support organization for local foster families, is developing its 7th Mile Farm on 30 acres neighboring the Five Hives property. Unfinished but already in use, 7th Mile is a campground and recreation facility, with a playground in the works and a sports complex planned, for foster children and at-risk youth programs from around the state.
Property belonging to another nonprofit, Broken Shackle Ranch, is on the other side of Fostering Bulloch’s space. Broken Shackle, which has been active in Bulloch County for about two years, received a donation from Joseph’s Home for Boys to carry on its work in Bulloch County after the original Joseph’s Home property was sold.
The Joseph House, created from the former golf course’s clubhouse, can accommodate up to six young men, mostly ages 16 through 20, under the supervision of house parents.
Broken Shackle’s Statesboro coordinator, Chris Yaughn, also is Fostering Bulloch’s founder and director, so the two organizations work closely together. When he started a petition opposing the zoning change and permission the partners needed for a farm winery, the first signatures collected were from leaders in other local service organizations.
By the zoning meeting, Yaughn said he had more than 100 signatures of Bulloch County residents, out of more than 150 signatures collected.
The petition document the Statesboro Herald obtained from the county clerk carried 22 signatures on two pages. But Yaughn’s online petition, “No Winery next door to Fostering Bulloch’s 7th Mile,” at Change.org showed a 166-signature total through last week.
Both Yaughn and Nick Propps, owner of the real estate firm Statesboro Properties and an advisor on Fostering Bulloch’s board of directors, said the Five Hives development would run contrary to the neighboring nonprofit organizations’ mission.
‘A safe space’
“Our objection is, my children I serve in the foster care and the at-risk community, they wouldn’t know moderation in consumption if they tripped over it in the middle of the night,” Yaughn said in a later interview. “All they’ve ever seen is abuse. It’s all they know. And having a winery right next door threatens our ability to create … that emotionally safe space for our kids.”
Meanwhile, men in addiction recovery from Mighty Man Ministries, a program with the same founder as Broken Shackle Ranch, are helping Yaughn complete the 7th Mile Farm facilities.
However, a convenience store that sells beer and wine already operates at an intersection across the highway.
“I don’t want us to get on the morals because that Time Saver 17 has been down there for 40 years and it sells alcohol seven days a week,” Clint Smith, developer of the also neighboring Smith Creek Subdivision, told the zoning board.
He said he wasn’t there to take sides. But Smith also said, “When a man spends his hard-earned money, he and his wife and his family, I think we need to do everything in this county to give him a fair shake” and noted that the Van Otterens had already purchased the property.
Propps and Yaughn based a different opinion on the convenience store’s longevity.
“We knew it was there first,” Propps said. “We accepted that it was there, and we had to work with that. This is the exact opposite. We are here first. They want us to change and accept and allow the law to be changed. The law does not allow the use. That’s why we’re here.”
In the later interview Yaughn said, “Yes, absolutely” when asked if the organizations he represents had been interested in the land Woonerf LLC purchased.
“I’ve told Eric that,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we were drafting a contract when he called me that he had a contract on it.”
But he added that he believes he would have the same objections had that not been the case and that the county ordinances give neighboring property owners a voice.
Yaughn told the zoning board he is in the business of supporting dreams and hates to oppose anyone’s dream but could not be neutral.
“However, if it goes through, we’ll be the best neighbors they’ll ever have, and we’ll be the first ones there to pull them out of the ditch,” Yaughn said.
The county zoning ordinance allows a farm winery only as a conditional use in an agricultural zone. The former golf course was zoned highway commercial, so the Five Hives partners applied for a zoning change from HC to Ag-5, and for the conditional use permission.
Further, the ordinance requires a minimum 30 acres for a farm winery. With 26.78 acres in its tract, Woonerf LLC applied for a variance.
Zoning board members went against a staff recommendation for approval of the zoning change, voting 4-1 to recommend that the county commissioners reject it. The zoning board voted 5-0 to deny the acreage variance, agreeing with a staff recommendation, and also 5-0 to recommend denial of the conditional use.
Van Otteren told the board that children wouldn’t see much of the winery, with the building on the back of the property, and berry and grape patches nearer 7th Mile Farm.
Since the meeting, he has been talking to an adjacent property owner for the purchase of about 3.5 acres. That would eliminate the need for the variance, but he is still appealing its denial. Van Otteren also suggested that, as a fallback plan, Five Hives could operate a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast under HC zoning, with the mead production at another site.
“We are trying to be good business citizens by following Bulloch County's Comprehensive Plan and Ordinances, which indicate that Bulloch County would like the property Zoned Ag-5,” he said in an email this week. “Our dream is to open a meadery. The only thing HC does not allow is fermentation of the must. Everything else we are already permitted to do on the property.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.