On Feb. 23, Lane County shut down the public area of Agrarian Ales’ tasting room, a farm-based brewery located north of Eugene. At issue are three main problems: lack of a Special Use Permit, land use and “a variety of health and safety violations.”
Agrarian has continued to brew and to serve beer on site, but patrons have been unable to sit at tables under an overhang. The closure has resulted in canceled events, and led to a flurry of community members contacting county and state officials in support of Agrarian.
Since its opening in 2012, Agrarian’s tasting room has become a popular destination. “We never intended to create the thing we created,” says Stephen Harrell, Agrarian general manager. “We opened so people could come out, get growlers, get beer to go. Then people said it was beautiful, and started coming out with their families. It became clear that we were now something that was filling a need the urban public had: This is an opportunity to see what it takes to brew beer, grow hops and give messaging on how beer is an agricultural product. It’s a place where people go and experience a thing that they can’t anywhere else.”
Agrarian’s 12-acre farm is zoned as “Exclusive Farm Use,” (EFU) and state land use laws restrict which activities can occur on the property. Non-agricultural use, such as the tasting room, requires a Special Use Permit from Lane County. While Agrarian had obtained a Special Use Permit for brewing, an additional permit was needed for the tasting room and other commercial or public use.
According to a statement from Lane County public information officer Devon Ashbridge, on Feb. 29, 2016, Lane County Land Management notified Agrarian that events held on the property would be in violation of county code. Agrarian applied for a Special Use Permit on May 25, 2017. The application was incomplete. Lane County informed Agrarian they had 180 days from the initial submission date to complete the application.
“We had to address specific issues,” says Harrell. “We dropped the ball.”
On Nov. 22, 2017, Lane County advised Agrarian that its application was automatically voided, “due to failure to complete the application as required.”
“Parts were deemed insufficient or incomplete,” says Agrarian co-owner Ben Tilley, “due to the inability of Agrarian to persuade Lane County compliance officials that our operations were consistent with the definition of ‘commercial activities in conjunction with farm use,’ as defined in Lane County Code for EFU lands.”
On Feb. 2, 2018, Agrarian submitted a new application.
The situation took a turn on Feb. 23. “After several years of working to address compliance land use and building permit requirements with Agrarian Ales, Lane County became aware of potential building code violations related to health and safety,” says Ashbridge. “When efforts to correct the violations were not undertaken in a timely manner, a building on the Agrarian property was deemed unsafe and closed to the public.”
Other health and safety concerns cited by the county included “the use of an outdoor, propane stove indoors” (which was removed after a visit from a deputy state fire marshal, then, during a follow-up inspection, was found back inside the facility), “the lack of a Type I hood over the cooking equipment,” and “installation of equipment such as the wood-fired oven not being permitted or inspected for compliance with the manufacturer’s installation instructions.”
“The ‘stove’ in question was a portable, propane-fired burner that was being used primarily to boil water, which we understood could be used specifically for that purpose without a hood,” says Tilley. “We have removed the portable stove from the kitchen area. We will keep our kitchen closed until we address all issues raised and can receive approvals from Lane County, the fire marshal and the Oregon Department of Agriculture to reopen the kitchen facility.”
While the County felt compelled to close the tasting room, Ashbridge says “Lane County is committed to working with Agrarian in order to address the immediate building safety issues, as well as working within state law regarding any zoning issues.”
In a release on their website, Agrarian acknowledged that “we have not always been as proactive as we could have been in addressing issues raised by Lane County.” They also maintain they are willing to make the needed investments to comply with state and county concerns. However, Agrarian says they need to be able to operate, so as to generate revenue to pay for the needed improvements.
Discussions between Agrarian and Lane County continue. “It is our hope that we can find a way to help a beloved and thriving rural business operate in a way that provides for the safety of the public and meets the same requirements that other businesses must also operate within,” says Ashbridge.
Agrarian points to land use law changes for farm-based wineries that made it easier for them to operate tasting rooms while making needed improvements. “While the land use code details how wineries can operate, and soon will detail how cideries can operate on EFU lands, there is no specific code related to how breweries operate on the same zoned lands,” says Tilley. “We are tasked with defining our operation consistent with a code that doesn’t acknowledge our type of operation.”
Ashbridge notes that Lane County commissioners “have expressed their support and desire to advocate at the state level for a similar land use law change for breweries.”
Agrarian is now working with a local engineering firm, architectural firm and a land use attorney to help the brewery address the structure and land use concerns, says Tilley.
“It would behoove the county to allow us to operate, continue to generate revenue for the county and our business and make the necessary upgrades as we can afford to do,” says Harrell. “We have a following in Eugene, Springfield and surrounding areas. If the county can’t grant us the ability to operate, that can all go away.” •