The butterflies certainly were fluttering in the pit of Joe Keel’s stomach as he sat — front and center — in the Hillsborough County Commission chambers.
On this day, Aug. 12, seven commissioners would determine whether his business, Keel & Curley Winery, could continue as-is. Supportive neighbors, employees and family members — all donning their “Save the Winery” shirts — flanked Keel in support.
Around him, too, were many neighbors and three Plant City pastors, who had come to fight against the rezoning request that would allow the winery’s newest arm, Two Henrys Brewing Company, to continue to operate.
Keel came armed with more than 10,000 petition signatures, as well as recommendations for approval from both the Hillsborough County staff and the county Zoning Hearing Master Steve Luce. Still, with an entire family business at stake, somehow, it didn’t seem like enough.
“We all felt pretty good heading into (the meeting), but until all the votes are cast, you can’t assume anything,” Keel said. “We knew we needed four votes. I did not expect to get a unanimous decision.”
But, that’s exactly what happened.
Nine months after a single phone call regarding a noise complaint led county officials to determine Keel & Curley was operating outside of its zoning, the County Commission voted 7-0 to approve the rezone request. Cheers and applause erupted both inside the packed commission chambers, as well as in the county building lobby, which had been set up to accommodate the overflow audience.
“It’s totally overwhelming,” Keel said of the support. “It’s hard to explain. It’s unbelievable that we have had so much support from everybody. … This was very heartfelt — by all of us in the family, and that includes our employees. We consider them part of our extended family.”
To celebrate, following the meeting, Keel threw a pizza party for his extended family.
The commission’s decision modifies the winery’s existing zoning to allow for the microbrewery. It also allows the winery to use a lot directly to the south of the business for overflow parking.
In their application, the Keels proposed stipulations to address the opposition’s concerns regarding noise and traffic. Beer production will be limited to no more than 250,000 gallons per year, and the Keels no longer will sell beers not manufactured on the premises. The Keels also converted their business to acoustic-only live music (no bass guitar or drums), and all music is routed through a sound limiter. The business also will limit its hours, and music on the outdoor deck will stop by 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and by 8 p.m. Sundays. The Keels also have limited the scope and duration of its special events. With the exception of the three-day Tampa Bay Blueberry Festival, no festival will last for more than two days. The business also will limit its weddings to no more than four per month.
Residents opposed to the rezoning request — led by Planning Commission member Ray Young — had attempted unsuccessfully to enter additional evidence at the Aug. 12 hearing. By law, only evidence presented at the June 23 zoning hearing was admissible at the final hearing.
Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe reminded the opposition’s speakers, specifically Young, of this law.
“We ask that you not stray from the testimony that you are very well aware of and well-versed of,” Sharpe told Young.
“I’m trying to understand the game rules here,” Young said.
“The game rules are the law, sir,” Sharpe said. “And you’re aware of them.”
Young argued that the documents from Luce’s June hearing were inaccurate.
“Of the 16 pages from Mr. Luce’s land-use hearing report, (on) almost every page, there are misstatements and untruths, according to county law and our ordinances,” he said. “You cannot, in good conscience, sit here today, not only as the board of county commissioners but also as the environmental protection board, and rule favorably on this event.”
Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who lives about two miles from the winery, made the initial motion for approval.
“It’s been frustrating for my friends, my community and my neighbors,” he said upon making his motion. “As commissioners, we have a very strict and straight line that we have to walk. … It has disappointed me and hurt me deeply, that on both sides — for and against — people asked me to look the other way. … You had faith and confidence in me to take an oath, like my six colleagues up here, and we will continue to do that.
“I have worked very hard to adhere to the facts of this case, which is what we’re required to do, and follow the law and the ordinances, and with that, I’m going to make a motion for approval,” Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham’s colleagues on the County Commission also had strong words of support for the Keel family.
“This applicant has made every attempt to follow the rules — from the original 2005 PD approval to a special-use permit from the county to sell beer and wine for consumption on- and off-premises to a 2COP license, they followed the book, step by step,” Commissioner Ken Hagan said. “In fact, in September 2013, Hillsborough County staff signed off on a state license for a microbrewery, stating that a craft brewery was allowed in their zoning.
“As a result, the applicant proceeded with site-plan review, permitting, construction and inspections — all done by Hillsborough County,” he said. “Why would the applicant go through all this work and expense to do so? And moreover, why would Hillsborough County staff allow this project to proceed and go through this entire process, if the rezoning did not allow a microbrewery?
“By approving this request, not only are we addressing a use that staff previously authorized, but we are limiting the scale of uses and adding numerous conditions that will provide significant protections to the community that do not currently exist,” Hagan said.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who presented the 2014 Tampa Bay Blueberry Festival proclamation, recognized Keel’s sons, Ryan and Clay, for their contributions to the continued success of agriculture in Hillsborough County.
“I want to commend you for your entrepreneurial spirit and carrying on what your family has done, and learning from your dad, Joe, what the family business has all been about,” he said. “There’s been some misconception that ag might be a dying business and industry here, and that the younger generations aren’t necessarily interested in agriculture. I think you’ve proven them wrong, and I think history books will, perhaps, write that you will be associated with blueberries, blueberry production and its offspring, just like the Dickmans were to the tomato industry in Ruskin.”
Contact Michael Eng at email@example.com.