Cheesemaker in ag zoning limbo
Monteillet Fromagerie has been at odds with Columbia County over the commercial uses of its rural property.
DAYTON — After more than a decade of raising goats and sheep and selling cheese from their farmstead outside of Dayton, Monteillet Fromagerie owners Joan and Pierre-Louis Monteillet never dreamed they might be in violation of county ordinances.
But after a letter last spring from the Columbia County Planning Department informed the Monteillets that commercial use of their property was out of compliance with the county code, the couple has spent the past year trying to reach a solution that won’t negatively impact their business.
“I thought (our business) was a real contribution to the county,” said Joan Monteillet. “I had no idea we were what they consider out of compliance until we got all this information coming our way.”
The root of the issue is the current zoning for the Monteillet property, which is agricultural-residential (AR-1). The Monteillets want to continue selling cheese directly from their property, as well as offer cheesemaking classes, wine tastings and other special events — activities officials say are commercial and not currently allowed in AR-1 zones.
The county code lists dairying, raising animals and home occupations among its acceptable uses, but no other commercial uses are mentioned.
County planner Kim Lyonnais said those uses allow the Monteillets to raise and milk animals and produce cheese on-site for sale elsewhere, but not to sell cheese or engage in other commercial activities.
The solution on the table now is to amend the county zoning code to allow limited commercial uses in AR-1 zones, but the process has been moving forward slowly.
The Monteillets have lived on the Ward Road property since 1981, when the area was zoned for A1 agricultural use, and raised sheep and goats and produced cheese for home consumption. They expanded into commercial cheese production in 2000, and the area was rezoned AR-1 in 2001. But county code enforcement has been slow to catch up, and Lyonnais said he’s working to make sure all businesses and properties are in compliance.
“Trying to have organized planning, you have to have some kind of enforcement,” he said.
On Aug. 27, 2013, Lyonnais sent Monteillet Fromagerie a letter saying the couple were in violation of county code by using the land commercially. The letter gave the Monteillets 30 days to respond before the issue would be forwarded to the county prosecutor for court action.
In response, the Monteillets hired attorney Michael Hubbard. At the recommendation of the planning department, he filed a petition in January 2014 to add on-site sales of farm products and other agricultural-based products to the conditional uses allowed in AR-1 zones.
“Their code needs to address the reality on the ground,” said Hubbard, noting that the corridor west of Dayton along U.S. Highway 12 has become more commercial.
The Planning Commission spot-zoned the Port of Columbia’s artisan food center, Blue Mountain Station, as commercial. Hubbard said planners should be similarly willing to accommodate the Monteillets, who have become a destination for tourism.
The Planning Commission discussed the proposed zoning changes at meetings on Feb. 24 and March 3, but haven’t been able to make a recommendation for the county commissioners.
Lyonnais said that’s in part because a large number of people representing wine and tourism interests have attended to make comments in support of Monteillet, which has made it difficult for commissioners to have a discussion among themselves.
Commissioners will hold a workshop Monday at 5:30 p.m. to discuss how and when to accept public comment at meetings, and further discuss their options for the Monteillet-requested zoning amendment.
“They’ve got to get this request processed in a timely manner,” said Lyonnais. “They’re still struggling with it.”
Planning Commission Chair Swan Eaton declined to answer questions asked via email about the commission’s general feelings toward amending the zoning or the public input the commission has received.
“Discussion of such topic is only discussed at scheduled planning commission meetings/workshops,” she responded.
Until a solution is reached, Hubbard has gotten permission from the commission to allow the Monteillets to continue operating.
The Fromagerie filed a liquor license renewal application with the Washington Liquor Control Board on February that Columbia County commissioners asked the board to deny until zoning and code issues are worked out. The WCLB denied the request on Feb. 27, saying that matters not related to the sale of alcohol were outside the scope of their jurisdiction.
Joan Monteillet said she was glad to see the issue proceeding toward a resolution and wished more of the county officials involved in enforcement would visit the farm and see how their business operates.
Monteillet Fromagerie was listed in Sunset’s Magazine’s Top 8 Agrotourism Experiences for the past two years, and Monteillet said it brings wine tourism money into Dayton.
“We can’t really have vineyards, it’s too cold up here,” she said. “But we can have things like Dumas Station and our tasting room that bring people up from Walla Walla spending their money,” she said.
She hopes to see the petition for a zoning amendment approved soon.
“I really don’t have any more energy for this. It’s just drained us, financially as well as emotionally,” she said.
Rachel Alexander can be reached at email@example.com or 509-526-8363.