SOMERS POINT – A husband and wife team who hoped to open a winery at a former Christmas tree farm, a site tucked into a residential neighborhood in Marmora, now plans to market their products in Somers Point.
While Mike and Robin Halpern will continue to grow and harvest grapes and plan to make wine on the 5-acre protected farmland they live on in Marmora, they agreed as part of a site plan approved by the county’s agriculture board not to have any tastings, sales or other events involving consumption on the property.
Despite that agreement, neighbors of the Halperns are continuing to oppose the designation of the couple’s property as protected farmland, among other issues cited, and have filed an appeal with the state.
To sell their wine, the Halperns purchased a home on the corner of Bay and Delaware avenues in Somers Point. They closed on that property Oct. 27 and will convert part of it into an outlet for their business, the Ocean City Winery.
The 1905 Somers Point home is in the lively downtown, which Mike Halpern likes to refer to as the Beer-muda Triangle, a reference he said one of his new neighbors coined based on the layout of the streets and the many well-established bars in the neighborhood. The Halperns will count other historic Somers Point watering holes as neighbors, including the Anchorage Tavern, Gregory’s Bar, Josie Kelly’s Public House and Charlie’s.
The house the Halperns purchased, which looks across the street and onto the bay, will be primarily used as an Airbnb, they said, adding they plan to divide the backyard, converting a detached garage and part of the yard into the outlet for their winery.
The home was previously used as a bakery and, more recently, a catering business was run out of its kitchen. It borders other residential properties on a street with a mix of businesses and homes.
In an interview with the Herald, Mike and Robin Halpern said they presented their plan to Somers Point’s conceptual review board, which liked the idea, although nothing about the review was binding.
“They were quite positive about it,” Mike Halpern said. “It’s not a commitment. There’s a bunch of little hurdles to jump through.”
He said that, under the rules, they will not be able to sell wine by the glass at their outlet, but can sell by the bottle and offer flights for tasting. He said they don’t plan to have live music or stay open late and are committed to being good neighbors.
“This is money we would have spent in Upper Township,” he said. “We have no interest in doing any more business besides our farm there. They’re just not supportive.”
The Halperns are still waiting for a license from the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control so they can produce wine in Marmora, which is part of Upper Township. That license will include the restriction that consumption is not permitted there, Mike Halpern said. The Halperns also still need formal approval from Somers Point to open the outlet. For now, they sell their harvests to other wine producers.
An Awkward Fit in Marmora?
Halpern said he listened to and understood some of the concerns of neighbors in Marmora, who protested the couple’s plans to open the winery there. They complained that the idea was not a fit for the neighborhood: Backyard swing sets would border a vineyard sprayed with chemicals by Halpern wearing a full hazmat suit.
Halpern said it’s actually a Tyvek painter’s suit that neighbors saw and photographed him wearing. He said he wears it so his clothes don’t get chemicals on them and so his wife doesn’t get mad at him for bringing them into the house. He said all chemical applications are done in accordance with state Department of Environmental Protection regulations.
Halpern said he has been disturbed by the level of animosity directed toward him and his wife since they moved to Marmora four years ago.
“They are absolutely dedicated warriors,” he said of the group opposing his winery.
The Halperns had an advanced security system installed on the property and have had to call the police on neighbors who, they say, tried to intimidate them.
Mike Halpern said neighbors have spread unfounded rumors about some mysterious criminal past of his, claims he said they have provided no evidence to back up and are laughable considering the high-level security clearances he has received as a contractor for the government throughout his career. Robin Halpern said she has had to change the route she walks her dog because of run-ins with neighbors angry about the winery.
“I have a genuine concern that property will get damaged or we’ll get physically injured,” Mike Halpern said.
Neighbors of the Halperns’ Bayaire Road property who felt jolted by the change from a sleepy Christmas tree farm to a vineyard grew more concerned when they learned of the legal protections that prevented the township from interceding.
The land the farm sits on is protected and cannot be developed. A vineyard and winery is an approved use of farmland under the law in New Jersey. The farm is designated as a commercial farm under the state’s Right to Farm Act and has been continuously farmed since the 1970s.
Some 25 neighbors of the proposed Ocean City Winery lawyered up, retaining Richard M. King Jr. to represent them in opposition. They challenged whether the farmland was large enough to qualify for the state protections it receives, allowing it to operate as a commercial farm, and attacked other aspects of the Halperns’ proposal, saying it would be a disruption to the neighborhood.
Upper Township also hired an attorney to focus solely on opposing the winery. Frank Corrado, the lawyer the township hired to be dedicated to this case, recognized the legal protections the Halperns enjoy, but asked that they do more to buffer the property and conform with the spirit of the town’s zoning vision.
At a hearing in February, the county’s Agriculture Development Board approved a Site Specific Agricultural Management Plan for the Ocean City Winery over the objections of neighbors and Upper Township.
Mike Halpern said he and his wife took their concerns into consideration and made several concessions to try to appease the neighbors and accommodate the township’s requests, even though the law did not require him to, like agreeing to add fencing and other buffers and agreeing to no sales or consumption in Marmora.
The Halperns’ efforts did not satisfy the neighbors, who are appealing the county agricultural board’s ruling to the state Office of Administrative Law.
A letter to that office sent by King, the neighbors’ lawyer, indicated their plan to again argue that the size of the farm has been mischaracterized and that the farm is not large enough to qualify for the protections. The neighbors are also raising other issues on appeal, including allegations that the legally required notice of prior hearings was not sufficient and that there will be inadequate buffering from residential neighbors.
The Halperns’ attorney, Colin Bell, responded in a letter of his own, writing that the appeal is “premised almost exclusively on strawman arguments.”
Bell refutes several claims made in the neighbors’ objection throughout his letter.
“While the record speaks for itself, we must correct some of the assertions put forth by the appellants even before this matter is transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law. As the inaccuracies in the objectors’ submission are legion, we address only the most glaring,” Bell wrote to the state, before going through different claims he deemed inaccurate one at a time.
King said his clients did not authorize him to comment to a reporter on the pending appeal.
Upper Township also joined King in the appeal through a letter from Corrado. Corrado did not respond to an inquiry from a reporter.
Mike Halpern said he didn’t understand why the township was willing to continue paying legal fees in an effort to come after his farm.
“I don’t get it. I still don’t understand why the township didn’t do the smart thing. Stop digging the hole, put the shovel down,” he said of the township’s decision to join the neighbors’ appeal.
In a Sept. 23 letter stating the township was backing the neighbors in the appeal, Corrado said he recognizes that there will be no on-site commercial sales and “further recognizes that the resolution contains several conditions, requested by the township and agreed to by the applicant, that ameliorate the impact of the winery operation on the surrounding community. Nevertheless, the township asks the SADC to resolve the significant issues raised by the neighbors’ appeal.”
Halpern said neighbors’ concerns that there will be any type of consumption are completely unfounded.
But in the letter from King, the lawyer states that much of the neighbors’ concern is based on “ever-expanding alcohol-related uses to which a ‘grape farm’ may be put.”
“This former small ‘tree farm’ in the backyard of the neighbors’ residences was not, and is not, the intended beneficiary of legislation that permits Bacchus parties, weddings and application of toxic chemicals by men in full hazmat suits (as often occurs). It is for this reason, and with this in mind, that the neighbors challenge the ‘commercial farm’ status of the purportedly 5-acre farm,” King continued.
The appeal is pending, and Mike Halpern said he had been advised there is some significant backlog, so it is unclear when it might be resolved.
In the meantime, the Halperns are permitted to proceed under all of the permissions of the county’s approval. They said they will hold off on certain investments they agreed to, like installing fencing, while the appeal is pending.
Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at email@example.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.