Richard Pelletier’s Nashoba Valley Winery is the model small business.
Its vineyards, winery, orchards and restaurant on 52 acres in Bolton draw thousands of visitors a year and, according to a report by David Boeri on wbur.org, employs up to 100 during peak season and 50 people year-round.
A decision this spring put all that in jeopardy.
After 16 years of allowing Pelletier to hold licenses for serving alcohol in the restaurant and for making wine, beer and liquor, the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission [ABCC] told him it would issue him to either a pouring license or a manufacturing license, but not both.
According to the WBUR report: “ ‘If I file the restaurant license first, they won’t issue me my farmer’s licenses. And if I file my farmer’s licenses first, they won’t issue me my restaurant license,’ Pelletier says.
“In a follow-up email, the ABCC pointed Pelletier to a section of state law that specifically prohibits owning a pouring license for a restaurant at the same time as owning a farmer’s manufacturing license.”
The ABCC has been silent in responding to questions about the reasoning behind its reinterpretation of the law but said, according to WBUR, “wine can only be poured in the building where it is made, and since the restaurant is 50 feet away, it is not the same premises.”
Pelletier is suing the ABCC. In Suffolk Superior Court, the office of Attorney General Maura T. Healey moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that Pelletier has not yet been denied a license and should exhaust “administrative remedies” before the court should hear the case.
Pelletier countered that because of the quandary he cannot book functions for next year and is already losing money. In addition, he said, waiting until licenses are denied would mean “he will already have been forced to close either his restaurant or his winery,” according to WBUR.
Reaction to the WBUR piece was swift. There was talk of drafting legislation to allow Pelletier to continue operating. Gov. Charlie Baker weighed in 10 days after the initial report, according to State House News Service, saying he supported legislation or legal action “to ensure that Nashoba Valley Winery can continue to pour its homemade wines, beers and spirits at both the Bolton winery and restaurant.”
SHNS referred to Baker’s actions as “somewhat unusual.”
The very next day, according to State House News Service, Healey took steps “to ensure that Rich Pelletier can continue operating the farm as he has for the past 16 years without needing to try to speed a legislative fix through the House and Senate in the closing weeks of session.
“Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who oversees the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, has compiled draft legislation that would allow all farmer wineries, breweries and distilleries to also serve their products at standalone, on-site restaurants. However, Healey, who is representing the ABCC in a lawsuit brought by the Bolton winery, doesn’t think that will be necessary.”
After much media attention and public hue and cry, it appears the matter will be resolved in favor of Pelletier. The Nashoba Valley Winery case, however, stands in stark contrast to a similar issue that played itself out in the city of Worcester less than three months ago.
Gilberto Ledesma owned and operated a successful automotive repair shop at 99 Chandler St. for six years.
Hoping to expand his business, on Aug. 5, 2015, Ledesma purchased 126 Chandler St. He did not know, nor was he made aware during the sale process, that the property at 126 Chandler St. was partially in a Commercial Corridor Overlay District, which was created by the City Council in February 2015 to “limit the proliferation of automobile uses within the urban core and instead foster redevelopment of higher-density mixed use (commercial and residential) neighborhoods of compatible uses,” according to a Planning Board document dated Feb. 3.
Unable to open his business at 126 Chandler, Ledesma sought redress through city government. After his petition to remove the building from the overlay district was denied by the Planning Board, the issue was taken up by the Standing Committee on Economic Development, which voted 3-0 on March 22 to recommend the change.
On April 12, the City Council took a step that could be called “somewhat unusual” by overruling the recommendation of the committee. The 6-5 vote fell two short of the eight required for two-thirds passage.
Voting for the change were the three councilors who comprise the Standing Committee on Economic Development — District 1 Councilor Tony Economou, District 3 Councilor George J. Russell and District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera — and Mayor Joseph M. Petty and Councilors at large Khrystian E. King and Kathleen M. Toomey.
Voting against were Councilors at large Morris A. Bergman, Michael T. Gaffney and Konstantina B. Lukes, and District 2 Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson and District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen.
Ledesma, quoted in a Worcester Magazine article, said “I can’t afford to keep my business going. … I don’t want to blame nobody but myself. I thought, because I lived on Chandler Street for six years, buying a building 200 feet from my old place, I wouldn’t have any problems … I just want to go to work. I’ve been sitting for a month now. And my mortgage is behind too.”
Economou said, “This is a unique situation, it happened to be the first one to come down the pike. I’m here asking for a little compassion. I’m here for us to stand up for everything we talk about on a regular basis here in regards to small business. How do we get them to expand and stay here in the city?”
Others suggested Ledesma could seek redress in the courts against those who advised him in the purchase of the building.
“If you sue someone for negligence, it would take years in the courts, and Gilberto’s property would already be foreclosed upon,” Ledesma’s attorney, Jonathan Finkelstein said.
There are differences in specifics of the Nashoba Valley Winery and Gilberto Ledesma cases. One is a state issue, the other municipal.
One is an upscale tourist and hospitality business in a bucolic setting, the other an auto repair shop on Chandler Street.
One participates in an industry the state wishes to promote, the other an industry the city wishes to limit in certain areas. One was based on a reinterpretation of an existing law, the other based on lack of knowledge of zoning restrictions.
One became a cause celebre that stoked talk of emergency legislative change and a quick solution, the other merited a vote by the governing body, albeit a negative vote.
There is one more difference, the elephant in the room. One is a high-profile white Republican businessman, the other is an ordinary businessman of Hispanic descent.
We do not expect those who govern us at all levels to be perfect. We do expect them, however, to be fair and equitable.
In this regard, we hold that the different outcomes in these cases is far from equitable. Two small businessmen are facing economic ruination in matters that are directly related to government oversight. One has the full weight of state government working to craft a solution to mitigate his losses. The other had a solution in his grasp only to see it taken away and be directed to incur additional expense at the hands of the court.
It is logical and easy to blame the five councilors who voted “no” on the zoning change that would have saved his business. Only two switched votes would have done the trick.
There is a larger question of equality here, though, because even if you believe the circumstances were handled equitably, there are certainly more than enough facts in evidence to suggest the Hispanic community would not agree.