The owners of Keel and Curley Winery sampled a taste of victory late last week, when Hillsborough County officials ruled the Plant City business could continue to operate as it has while awaiting a ruling on a modification to its zoning.
“There was an outside chance that they could have stopped us from serving beer and parking in the lot across the street, but they pulled back,” said winery owner Joe Keel.
However, although the ruling gave Keel, his family and employees a small reason to celebrate, they know the battle is far from over.
The winery’s problems began last November, when a neighboring resident, William Woodall, filed a noise complaint with the county regarding the business’ live music. Upon investigating that complaint, code enforcement officials discovered the sale of beer through the business’ new label, Two Henrys Brewing Company, was not allowed under Keel and Curley’s current zoning. Furthermore, the winery’s use of an adjacent lot for parking also was not permitted, and neither was its use of the property to host weddings and other events.
The winery’s planned development zoning, which it obtained in 2005, provides for agricultural uses, the winery and an accessory retail shop. Keel and his attorney, Judy James, filed March 25, an application to revise its zoning to include the brewery, beer sales, event hosting and parking.
Keel said he was unaware that the business was operating outside of its zoning. According to documents drafted by James, Keel and Curley obtained a permit to sell beer and wine in 2006. The company also obtained in 2011, a separate license to distribute beer and wine — a license that required action from Hillsborough County.
Furthermore, before it opened Two Henrys last October, the company applied for a craft brewery license, which required an electrical permit and inspections by county officials.
And although the beer sales only caught the eye of code-enforcement officials after Two Henrys opened, Keel and Curley has been selling beer since it opened.
“We used to sell other craft beers, and that’s how we got the idea to start our own brewery,” said Keel’s son, Clay Keel, who launched Two Henrys.
County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who lives about two miles from Keel and Curley, said his office fielded the original noise complaint from Woodall and also a similar complaint from resident Lonnie Oswald. His staff forwarded those inquiries to the code-enforcement department.
Joe Keel said he and James met with Higginbotham in March to discuss possible solutions but came away from the meeting disheartened.
“To be honest, at that time, I felt that he was not a friend of the winery,” Joe Keel said.
Higginbotham said he always has tried to be a good neighbor to the business and even donated his time to help Keel and Curley when it suffered a fire in 2006.
“My wife and I both helped,” he said.
Joe Keel said he did not recall meeting the Higginbothams during that time.
“If they did, I did not know about it, and neither did anyone in my family or business,” he said.
Shortly after receiving the noise complaints, Keel and Curley converted to acoustic-only live music, and staff members also check levels with a decibel meter. Furthermore, the Keels sent letters to all neighboring residents in hopes of resolving any issues directly.
“The residents who complained — they never reached out to us; they’ve never communicated with us,” Clay Keel said.
The noise has subsided, but Woodall and Oswald told the Tampa Bay Times they still oppose the brewery portion of the business.
“The winery itself we weren’t opposed to,” Woodall said. “They’re not zoned for what they’re doing. It’s really not a good area for them.”
“This is a very rural neighborhood,” Oswald said. “They’re not zoned for the bar. They’re not zoned for special events such as weddings, but they’ve been carrying on right along. They’ve kind of done it under the radar.”
Keel and Curley also has received support from its neighbors. Kay Durham, who, at just 100 yards away, is Keel and Curley’s closest neighbor, said the Keels always have been courteous and responsive.
“I moved into my house … right beside Keel and Curley two years ago,” she said in a letter of support of the business. “When I bought, I knew of them and what they did. I bought anyway and somewhat because of it. I like the ambiance.
“In the past two years, I have called them three times when a band got a bit too loud, and, immediately, they took care of it,” she wrote. “Any time that I have a question or concern, they are right on it and are always nice about it. Honestly, (I) couldn’t ask for better neighbors.”
Clay Keel also said the burgeoning craft-beer industry certainly would yield revenue for the local economy through tourism and taxes.
“There is no reason why we (Tampa Bay) can’t be the craft brew capital of the Southeast,” he said. “The possibilities are endless.”
The Keels estimate they have spent about $25,000 for the rezoning application and required engineering studies and attorney’s fees.
The zoning revision will go before both a land-use hearing officer and land-use zoning hearing master June 23. Then, the Hillsborough County Commission ultimately will make its decision at its Aug. 12 meeting.
Joe Keel said that decision is critical for the continued success of the business. To bolster its position, the winery has launched a petition advocating for the zoning modification approval. So far, the winery has collected about 7,000 signatures on both its physical and online petitions. Joe Keel hopes to have 20,000 by the land-use hearings next month.
“We’re going to continue to fight,” he said. “If this doesn’t happen, half of the employees will have to be let go. The tasting room — if it does exist — will be a shell of what it is right now. Whether we make it through — time will tell.
“We need four votes out of seven,” Joe Keel said of the County Commission vote in August. “I feel very confident, but there’s nothing assumed in life but death and taxes. And some don’t even pay their taxes.”
Contact Michael Eng at email@example.com.