AMHERST — After a rehearing on LaBelle Winery’s proposal to expand its facility, local zoning officials have once again granted all of the necessary variances for the development to proceed.
Despite concerns from about 15 neighbors that the 24-room inn, restaurant, distillery and office space will alter the rural character of the community, the zoning board voted last week to allow the complex, which will be constructed across the street from the existing winery, to move forward to the planning board phase for additional review.
“This is not going to interrupt the rural character. It is being designed to fit in very much with the rural character,” said Jamie Ramsay, member of the board. “It is not a Motel Six ... what is proposed is not a blight to the rural character of that part of town.”
Although the board previously granted several variances, a rehearing was held on Nov. 15 after a request to reconsider was filed by local resident Richard J. Fredette and his attorney, Nicolaas Groeneveld-Meijer, who is also representing other concerned neighbors.
Last week, the board further debated the issue and determined that because the land at 340 Route 101 is unique and would be difficult for certain development, the proposed inn and restaurant is appropriate.
“I feel that it would make an excellent entrance to Amherst, and I do not think it is in contrast to the public interest,” said Robert Rowe, board member.
Earlier this month, Groeneveld-Meijer approached town officials and claimed that the expansion project would adversely impact residents who live nearby at Holly Hill, Greenbriar Lane and Winterberry Drive.
He maintained that it could provide unwanted noise, a decrease in property values and traffic safety problems in the vicinity of the development.
“The impact from the proposed use is out of sync with that area,” said Paula Domanski of 3 Greenbriar Lane. “This is a high intensity proposal. This decision needs careful consideration.”
Amy LaBelle and her husband are in the process of purchasing the 48-acre parcel along Route 101, which is directly across the street from LaBelle Winery; five acres of the new farmland property would be used for an additional vineyard.
An old farmhouse that still sits on the property would be renovated for corporate offices, and a three-story inn, 150-seat restaurant and the town’s first distillery are included in the preliminary plans for the site.
It is possible to allow some development on the property while still respecting the rural elements of the environment, said Douglas Kirkwood, chairman of the board.
“It is not an easy balancing act,” he acknowledged, stressing the definition of ‘rural character’ is a personal interpretation.
Reed Panasiti of the zoning board expressed concerns about the town’s master plan and its goal to preserve the rural character in that portion of Amherst. While the future development may not be in contrast to the public interest, some neighbors are worried about its impact, according to Panasiti.
“This has been a very difficult decision for me to make,” he added.
In response to neighbor concerns, LaBelle has offered to conserve more than half of the property, or about 25 acres, to serve as a buffer for the nearby neighborhood.