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Friday, May 17, 2024

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Winemakers, Neighbors Settle Dispute Over Marmora Vineyard

Shay Roddy/ File Photo
Mike and Robin Halpern in front of a detached garage behind a Bay Avenue home in Somers Point they recently purchased, where they plan to open an outlet for their Ocean City Winery. Photo Credit: Shay Roddy/ File Photo

By Shay Roddy

MARMORA – The owners of a vineyard tucked inside a residential neighborhood have reached a settlement with a group of neighbors and Upper Township, after a legal battle over the owners’ proposal to produce wine on the site, which is designated as protected farmland.

The settlement brings a resolution to what has been a long and heated confrontation over the use of the property — a former Christmas tree farm – that included death threats to the owners that led them to file reports with the State Police and install a security system on the property.

Some neighbors of the Bayaire Road vineyard feared the once sleepy tree farm would turn into a bustling party venue and objected to chemical applications on the land. Some children’s backyard swing sets are located along the vineyard’s border.

The neighbors who opposed the plan were dismayed when they learned that because of the protected farmland designation, the township’s Planning Board had no say in the matter and that winemaking was an approved use of New Jersey farmland.

The settlement calls for certain chemicals not to be used, advanced notice of the application of other chemicals, and additional trees being planted at the farm owners’ expense as a buffer to neighboring properties.

It comes after an appeal filed by the group of neighbors and joined by the township — which had hired special counsel to represent its interests in front of the county board in February 2023 — of the county Agriculture Development Board’s unanimous approval of the site plan.

At the county hearing, husband and wife Mike and Robin Halpern, the farm owners, agreed to drop plans for an 80-seat tasting room and take all sales off-premises in an effort to appease neighbors. They have said they plan to call their business Ocean City Winery.

“The township believes that the settlement that was reached addresses the township’s concerns,” Frank Corrado, a lawyer for Upper Township, told the Herald.

Corrado said Upper’s position was that the county board should consider the requirements of the township’s zoning when determining the conditions of approval for the winery, although he acknowledged the application was properly before the county board.

Although the township hired Corrado strictly for the purpose of litigating against the Halperns’ planned use of the land, he said he believed it was “a misconstruction of the township’s position to say that they took an adversarial approach.”

“Technically, you are adverse, but there are degrees of adverseness, I guess is what I’m trying to say. And in this case, the township was not taking the position that we don’t want this operation at all there, or that you have to come before the township Zoning Board,” the attorney said in a phone interview.

Richard M. King Jr., an attorney who represented 25 of the Halperns’ neighbors, did not return a call from the Herald seeking his comment on the settlement. His clients had all signed off in a copy of the agreement provided by the township.

In December, the Halperns received a winery license from the state that allowed them to begin production, even while the appeal was pending. They’re in the process of trying to open an outlet in Somers Point.

In an interview Tuesday, April 9, the morning after Upper Township signed off, Mike Halpern evoked the comedian Larry David, quoting his character from the HBO sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied,” David said on the show.

Halpern said he can relate to that sentiment but is pleased that the matter is moving toward a resolution.

The settlement will still need to be reviewed by an administrative law judge, who is expected to memorialize the agreement in a stipulated order.

Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at sroddy@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.

Reporter

Shay Roddy is a Delaware County, Pennsylvania native who has always spent as much of his summers as he could at the Jersey Shore. He went to Friends’ Central and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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