Rural brewpub rub

March 4, 2018 GMT

For more than five years, visitors have been pulling into Agrarian Ales’ 12-acre farm north of Eugene for fresh brewed beer and wood-fired pizzas.

But last month, a 1,500-square-foot enclosed dining area became the focal point in a dispute with Lane County officials over building codes and land use regulations that has spilled into the public.

The brewery on a farm, as its owners and employees describe the business, still is open. Customers gathered outside the entryway to the brew pub’s main seating area on a recent Saturday, where an employee took orders and brought food and beer out to them.

But customers haven’t been able to sit there since a Lane County building inspector placed a “no public inside” notice on the enclosure Feb. 23.

The county wants Agrarian to bring the enclosed area up to commercial code. The company says fixing up the main place for customers to eat and drink during the winter season will cost in the five- or six-figure range.

The building dispute with Lane County highlights the complex state and local laws that regulate business activities on the thousands of acres of southern Willamette Valley farmlands. And the episode has led the brewery’s management team to implore Agrarian’s fans to contact Lane County commissioners and Oregon lawmakers for a resolution.

“We want to be compliant, but we need the opportunity to be able to operate,” said Stephen Harrell, Agrarian’s farm manager. “We were never told anything to the effect of, ‘If you don’t do this now we’re going to close you down.’ ”

For Agrarian’s founders, Ben and Nate Tilley, opening the brewery and tasting room in 2012 was a way to supplement their family’s tomato and pepper farming operation, by tapping into the booming craft beer industry.

The plan had been years in the making. They received approval from Lane County back in 2009 to start brewing beer on the property and in mid-2012 they gained approval to operate a kitchen on the property. They converted a farm building on the edge of the Tilley family’s property into a six-barrel brewing system and kitchen next to a two-acre hops farm. They opened their doors to the public in late 2012 and by the following summer were garnering favorable reviews in national beer publications.

But their success apparently flew under the radar of Lane County building officials — despite Agrarian widely promoting events on its website and through Facebook — until September 2015, when a company official visited the county’s Land Management Division to discuss plans for the property.

The special use permit Agrarian received in 2012 allowed them to brew beer and process food from their farm, but it didn’t allow a commercial-scale restaurant and tasting room, Lane County spokeswoman Devon Ashbridge said.

“We were not aware that Agrarian had begun using the property beyond the scope of the original Special Use Permit,” Ashbridge said in an email. “When we became aware, we began attempting to work with Agrarian on a new Special Use Permit.”

Admittedly complex processes

But securing that permit has been anything but easy. Agrarian representatives received multiple extensions to complete its permit application between early 2016 and mid-2017, Ashbridge said. Their application was automatically voided in November after 180 days passed without the paperwork being completed.

“We haven’t always done the best job responding,” Harrell acknowledged. Instead of hiring an attorney or land use consultant to do the work, Agrarian managers including Harrell and Ben Tilley have handled the paperwork, while continuing to operate the business with five full-time employees.

“It’s complicated dealing with the county, complicated to write a special use permit,” Harrell said. “You need multiple copies of everything, site plans. It’s an intense amount of information.”

Meanwhile, Lane County was sending Agrarian notices that the property was out of compliance with county building codes, specifically the 1,500-square-foot enclosure.

State law regulates activities on land zoned for exclusive farm use, like the Agrarian property. But while the exclusive farm use designation allows for more relaxed building codes, the county determined Agrarian needed to meet stricter commercial safety standards to keep operating.

“While Agrarian contends that the overhang and enclosed eating area does not constitute having the public inside, the existence of a roof held up by vertical supports is considered a building per the building code,” Ashbridge said.

Meanwhile, a deputy fire marshal who inspected the Agrarian property last month reported several issues to Lane County Land Management, including the unsafe use of extension cords and an outdoor propane stove operating inside.

The county inspector showed up 11 days later and posted the notice barring people from the seating area.

To Harrell and Agrarian’s owners, the move to shut the seating area was abrupt and puzzling.

“We’ve made no secret what we’re doing here,” Harrell said. “We publish all over the Internet, put ads out, we’ve been written up several times. We’re not operating in secret in the farmland, so I don’t know, there’s something amiss there that I can’t quite figure out.”

The county says its building officials try to work with property owners to voluntarily address issues, and its communication with Agrarian is no different. But the county’s building department is thinly staffed, Ashbridge said, and inspectors weren’t tipped off to the scope of Agrarian’s operation until the Agrarian representative contacted the county.

“Lane County Land Management has been in the process of working with Agrarian for several years now,” Ashbridge said. “Property owners often request guidance and assistance navigating the admittedly complex processes for the different types of permits available, and our staff works hard to provide that guidance while not supplanting any private legal or technical advice that a property owner may need to seek.”

But for Harrell, shutting down the enclosed seating area came at the worst time. He said getting the space up to commercial code may be a six-figure job. He declined to go into detail about Agrarian’s finances.

Legislative solution an option

One solution could come from the Oregon Legislature. In 2013, lawmakers passed new land use rules specifically for wineries on exclusive farm use-zoned land. The rules enabled wineries operating on farmland to sell their products and hold limited special events on their properties.

“The state changing the laws to accommodate our business in the same ways the state changed the laws to accommodate a winery business would remove the barrier of our land use issue with the county,” Harrell said.

But he also wants more flexibility from Lane County to allow guests into Agrarian’s enclosed seating space. They need the customers through the lean winter months to make enough cash for the fixes, he said.

“We need time until we have enough revenue to upgrade the building,” Harrell said. “That’s why we reached out to the community for support. We need some action from the bureaucracy. It doesn’t seem to budge.”

Follow Elon Glucklich on Twitter @EGlucklich . Email elon.glucklich@registerguard.com .