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McHenry County Board creates winery license

WOODSTOCK – A majority of the McHenry County Board crushed opposition to a winery ordinance like a grape Tuesday.

Board members voted, 18-6, to amend the liquor ordinance and create a “class W” winery license for the production of up to 50,000 gallons of wine a year.

Members also soundly rejected a list of six amendments developed by several members of the Liquor and License Committee.

Tuesday’s vote ended the first phase of a quest by Jeff and Sue Pankow – one started in September – to turn their small Blue Star Vineyard southeast of Hebron into a winery and allow tastings.

Now they have to go through the Zoning Board of Appeals, get a conditional-use permit, and go back to the liquor committee for the newly approved class W license.

Despite confidence throughout the process, Jeff Pankow said after the vote that he is concerned about having to go before the County Board in the future to face more changes.

“It’s going to be more of the same, and I’m very worried,” Pankow said. The process may go smoothly with the zoning board, he said, “but when it gets back to the County Board, all bets are off.”

The first order of business Tuesday, combining the six amendments into one for an up-or-down vote – caused confusion that took 30 minutes, two votes and a recess to resolve. Both votes resulted in a point of order because they were proposed by board members who intended to vote them down.

Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, and Anna May Miller, R-Cary, called the amendments micro-managing. Wheeler said many of the amendments should be addressed as part of the zoning and conditional-use process, and should not be part of the liquor ordinance.

“We in essence are trying to dictate what this business is going to be, and that’s not the role of government at this time,” Miller said.

Liquor committee Chairman John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, disagreed. Hammerand, who helped draft the six amendments, was not happy that they were flatly rejected, and said his committee will have a hard time enforcing the new ordinance.

“You’ve given me an ordinance that’s unworkable. It’s a Catch-22,” Hammerand said.

Hammerand was accused by some, including some of his fellow liquor commission members, of trying to sabotage the winery effort through delays and proposals such as requiring wineries to use at least 50 percent county-grown grapes. Hammerand has strongly denied the accusations, and said the current ordinance amounts to spot zoning for taverns.

“What we’re doing is turning our winery license into bars that can stay open at bar hours and [serve] bar alcohol. The only difference I see ... is the location,” Hammerand told board members.

The proposal did not move in the liquor committee until a majority decided that the Pankows had waited long enough and forced the vote. On April 10, it recommended on a 3-2 vote to move the new type of license forward, with Wheeler, John Jung, R-Woodstock, and Bob Bless, R-Fox River Grove, outweighing Hammerand and Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard.

The vote put the committee in the odd position of having substantive discussion on an ordinance it had already moved forward. Amendments developed at the committee’s prior meeting – and rejected Tuesday – included limiting the hours of operation, limiting sample sizes to one ounce, limiting people to six pours per person per day, and limiting the alcohol content of fortified wines such as port to 20 percent.

Board member Peter Merkel, R-McHenry, said constituents are laughing at the County Board over the winery debate, and rejected ideas that the debate showed the ordinance was not ready. He said the idea will “never be ready” in the eyes of a few.

“This has taken seven months – we have obstructionists, we have people who just don’t want this,” Merkel said. “I think we’re business friendly. I think ... we’re not giving that impression.”

To board member Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, the debate over the winery has taught entrepreneurs a bad lesson about doing business in the county.

“If you want a business and it has some controversy, you may as well go to Wisconsin because it won’t go anywhere here,” McCann said.

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