Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Iowa Winemaker Fights City Hall

We've all heard the old axiom: "You can't fight city hall."  An Iowa winemaker is finding that you can fight them, it's just not easy.

Schade Creek Vineyard - it's pronounced "shady" - is six acres of vines in the small town of Waukee, Iowa.  Kurt Schade was happy growing grapes and selling them to other winemakers, but he longed for something more.  In 2007, Schade decided to build a winery and tasting room, make his own wine and sell it to thirsty locals and tourists right there on the property.

The land was zoned for agricultural use, but Schade did his homework and discovered that in Waukee's city limits, a class A winery did not require the approval of the local government.  He's a guy who likes to do things right, though, so Schade approached the city staff and told them what he had learned.  The city officials gave him their blessing to create a destination winery that would bring new tax dollars and, likely, new tourist dollars into the commuter community only a few miles from Des Moines.

Schade tells me "most folks in Waukee drive to work and spend the bulk of their expendable income in Des Moines, so a winery in Waukee seemed like a great idea - good for me, good for the public and good for the city."

Jana and Kurt Schade
He put a lot of his own hard-earned money into creating a new building from the ground up and making the necessary upgrades to the facility - as requested by the city -  to provide the public with an up-to-code tasting room to visit.  He even went to the state capitol to make sure everything was on the up-and-up, and government officials there told him he was within the scope of the law and should proceed with his plans.  In 2008, he started making his own wines and began applying for permits to open the tasting room early in 2009.  Things began to go south in May of that year.

"That's when the city told me they felt they had jurisdiction in the case after all,” Shade says.  “There's a street which ends at my property, and when the city wanted to extend it they would have to build a multi-million dollar bridge.  They wanted to take part of my land - and vines - and they wanted me to sign a letter saying that I agreed to letting them assess me as they saw fit, no matter what the cost."

The city of Waukee wanted to take Schade's land from him - it's called eminent domain - and they wanted him to help pay for the street extension.  "When I started the whole process, I knew there was a possibility that the city might someday want to extend that street through my property.  So I built a berm through that area along the right-of-way, to allow for that.  I never thought their demands would be so unreasonable.  The street will not enhance my property, it will probably detract from it.  I like my community and I'm pro-growth, but if I had known they would claim jurisdiction and make these demands on me, I would have considered selling the property and buying land elsewhere before sinking my life savings into the winery."

Schade Creek Vineyard and Winery
Schade feels he should be compensated for the land and the vines that will be lost to the construction - and that he shouldn't have to foot the bill for said construction.  Since hitting this impasse with the city, his tasting room - which opened last year - has been shut down, killing his retail business.  He's still making wine, but has to do his best to sell it wholesale, which is not something he is set up to do.  "A member of the city council - Mike Watts - was abusing his power and sending the police over to my place whenever a few cars are on the property.  It has gotten very personal."

The city says he should have assumed that these conditions could occur, even though they gave him the green light to build the winery.  So far, Schade has been unsuccessful in reversing the city council's decision, even though locals and other winemakers have come to public meetings to speak on his behalf.

“Waukee's mayor Bill Peard is definitely part of the opposition,” says Schade.  "I worked with the city every step of the way and they waited until I requested the occupancy permit to drop this news on me.  I thought a winery and tasting room with a pond and a fountain and a pretty vineyard would be an attraction the city would want to have around.  No other class A native winery in Iowa has received the opposition we have."

Schade Creek Winery submitted four wines to the Midwest Competition in 2012, in which they competed with wineries from 16 states.  All of the Schade Creek wines were medal recipients - in fact, they were one of only two wineries in Iowa to receive two Gold medals.  One of their wines - Harlan Henry,a wine made from Noiret grapes and named after Kurt’s Dad - received a Chariman’s nomination, meaning it was one of the top 20 wines of the competition.  I wrote about some of the Schade Creek wines in the Now And Zin Wine Country series.

Schade says he now has to decide whether to stop making wine he can't sell, or sell it in bulk to other wineries.  The intervention of a state agency might help, but Schade isn't holding his breath.

"The wine industry in Iowa is still in its infancy," says Schade, "and the state's wine organizations say they're sorry, but they just don't have the money to help fight the fight.   I'm left wishing I had built the winery in a community that would embrace it."

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