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Keel and Curley beer sales hit sour note

— A winery operating at a blueberry farm near Plant City is violating its zoning by brewing and selling beer, Hillsborough County officials say.

Keel and Curley Winery at 5210 Thonotosassa Road has been selling beer for seven years, said Joe Keel, president and chief executive officer. But the beer business didn't come to the attention of county inspectors until November, when neighbors started complaining about loud music from the winery.

The noise complaints came to county Commissioner Al Higginbotham's office and he forwarded them to county code enforcement. The code inspectors saw the beer sales and cited the winery for violating the special conditions attached to its 2005 rezoning.

Last August, Keel applied for and received a state license to brew beer. That, too, was reviewed and approved by the county, he said.

“In all honesty, this whole interpretation that we're not allowed to sell beer is their opinion,” Keel said, referring to county zoning officials. “We've never done anything against the county law or the state law.”

The county disagrees, saying that when Keel obtained a rezoning of his 26.5-acre blueberry farm to “planned development,” the zoning carried conditions that restricted the business to operations associated with the winery.

“The purpose of the accessory retail sales building is for the sale of product associated with the winery (e.g. wine, wine accessories, etc.),” the county zoning document states under the heading “Recommended Conditions.”

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“It specifically says wine, the sale of product of the winery,” said Adam Gormly, the newly appointed director of the county's Development Services department.

Gormly said Florida's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco leaves it up to local governments to enforce zoning restrictions attached to alcoholic-beverage licenses.

“The state is not interested in and won't enforce those local restrictions as part of their AB licensing,” Gormly said. “That's for the local jurisdiction to enforce.”

The county might never have known about the brewing and beer retail sales if music from the winery hadn't upset neighbors.

“The problem my neighbor and I had was the loud music,” said Lonnie Oswald, who lives about a half-mile from the winery. “It seemed every weekend … sitting inside watching TV, I could hear it. When I walked outside, it was like it was right there. I could even hear the words.”

Oswald said he never noticed the noise until the winery got its license to brew beer, too. The winery started hosting weddings and other events with live music.

After he complained to a sheriff's deputy and to Higginbotham's office, the music from the winery stopped, Oswald said. But he's still concerned about the winery running a “full-blown” bar in an area that is otherwise quiet and rustic. Oswald said he worries about increased crime and traffic on the patched-up rural roads.

“We wanted to move out in the country where it was quiet and peaceful,” Oswald said. “Now all of a sudden they want to bring a bar out here which will increase crime and traffic.”

Oswald said other residents in the area also are concerned about the implications of a bar in an agricultural and residential area.

One of them, Bill Hoeft, called Higginbotham's office trying to get more information about the winery and whether its operations were violating county rules.

“It's a quiet neighborhood out there, but on Friday and Saturday nights, the place erupts,” Hoeft said. “I can only wonder what it's doing to property values.”

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But Keel, who is seeking a zoning modification to allow brewing and selling beer, has his own supporters. He started a petition drive several weeks ago and claims to have gathered 6,000 signatures from Hillsborough County residents; among them was Wanda Allen of FishHawk Ranch.

“My thinking is having a beer is similar to wine. It's a personal choice,” Allen said. “I'm opposed to government having their noses in everything anyway.”

Keel's case will go to a zoning hearing master June 23.

The hearing master will make a recommendation to the county commission, which makes the final decision on the beer sales.

Keel said if his application is approved, he will not go back to staging the noisy events that alienated his neighbors.

“That's not the way to do things,” he said.

“We try to be a good neighbor.”

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