MILTON, Ga. — The Milton City Council may burn the midnight oil June 7 when it hears three use-permit requests for the Painted Horse, a working farm and Fulton County’s first farm winery located along Hopewell Road and Bethany Way.
At issue are requests by the company to continue holding events like kid’s birthday parties, church or corporate events, summer camps and weddings the Painted Horse contends it has been hosting for decades. Owner Pamela Jackson said these types of events have occurred since she bought the farm, well before the City of Milton was established, and she is questioning why her business is suddenly being required by the city to obtain permits.
She also said she thinks she is being singled out, claiming dozens of farms in Milton host agricultural-related events and are not being required to obtain permits.
The city disagrees with the Painted Horse’s claim its business has a legal non-conforming use under its zoning regulations, or the events are “grandfathered” because they were potentially permissible when the property was under the county’s codes.
Nearby residents who have spoken against granting the permits, citing traffic, safety, noise and other issues, with some claiming the farm his now infringing into commercial territory.
The issue came to a head at the Planning Commission’s April meeting, where nearly six hours of discussion resulted in the board recommending denial for two of the use-permit requests.
Defining allowable events
Jackson contends the three use permits deal with events on the farm outside the operations of the winery.
One permit is for “agricultural related activities.” It allows for certain events like children’s birthday parties or summer camps. The city cites the permit as related to “children’s activities.”
Ellen Smith, an attorney representing Jackson, said the city’s codes allow for more uses not directly dealing with kids.
Another permit is for the Painted Horse to operate as a “rural event facility,” which includes, but is not limited to, events like weddings, private parties or corporate events. Though the city’s permit allows later times, Jackson’s request includes allowing live music until 10 p.m., with noise restrictions.
The third permit deals directly with a new initiative by the Painted Horse, its “Uncorked” concert series that began last year. To continue the series, the city is requiring the Painted Horse to apply for an indoor/outdoor festival or event permit.
These ticketed concert events have encountered the most resistance from residents.
City staff has recommended approval, with conditions, of the three permits. The Planning Commission voted to recommend approval of the agricultural activities permit, but voted 6-1, to recommend denial for the others, with Zach Middlebrooks opposed.
Owner: Events are no nuisance
Jackson, who has lived at the property for about 30 years, says her property is exemplary of the rural character the city touts. As other farms in the area continue to subdivide, Jackson says she has a “commitment to preserving land” and to operate her property as a farm instead of allowing some 18-home development.
But to keep her property viable, it is “crucial” to host events.
“If I’m going to keep this agricultural, I have to have a way of making money,” she said.
She also said the events have been generally well received — reinforced by many who spoke in favor of them at the April Planning Commission meeting — and have not been a nuisance, though that point has been contended by several neighbors, specifically related to noise and traffic.
Jackson said the business has adhered to the city’s noise ordinance, hires two off-duty officers to direct traffic on weekends and during other large events, and she has not received a citation for any violation in about 25 years of running the farm and events.
Jackson maintains that the events are in keeping with a farm.
“We don’t want to be a full-time events facility,” she said. “We do want to afford folks the opportunity to use our greenspace and property on a limited basis. We are looking to complement and supplement the farm winery use.”
Jackson maintains that her business’ events are either grandfathered or a legal non-conforming use, she is seeking the permits to “be a good neighbor.”
That includes being a good “neighbor” to herself. Jackson said the Painted Horse only operates four days a week and shuts down the winery portion of the venue at 8 p.m. on weekends because she lives on the site.
City reacts to complaints
The city says during last summer and fall, it “received various complaints regarding an increased number of visitors to the site, issues with off-premises parking and loud music coming from the property.”
After it met with Jackson “multiple times” last year, the city moved to require the permits, opposing her stance that the events were grandfathered from Fulton County.
The city also consulted its attorney, Ken Jarrard, who “concurs with city staff’s analysis on the grandfathering issue.”
Several nearby homeowners have spoke in opposition to the permit requests.
Many have expressed they take no issue with the winery, or some activities like kid’s birthday parties or horse riding lessons. But the ticketed concerts and other large events with amplified music have caused headaches, and some feel the farm is entering commercial-use territory.
“This small, quaint winery that we were very excited about on the front end has evolved into a full-blown commercial business that’s impacting everything we love about living in Milton,” one resident told the Planning Commission.
Sara Rich told the Herald she lives about one-half mile from the Painted Horse. Starting last year, she said, she noticed traffic issues at the farm and could hear music well enough at her property to sing along.
“When the winery first started, we thought it was so cool and a great use of the land,” Rich said. “We were totally in support of that.”
However, Rich said she built her home in Milton for the “peace and quiet” the area offered, and the issues presented by large events at the Painted Horse are “too much” of a commercial use, and they are unfair to those who live nearby.
She is worried about the City Council’s upcoming decision on the permits.
“It’s scary to think that all it takes is one too many favorable Council members to effect all of these neighbors,” Rich said.
Mimi Sullivan also lives near Jackson’s property, and shares those worries. Sullivan said after the Painted Horse was granted its farm winery permit by the state, the issues with traffic and noise began.
“We live in a residential area,” Sullivan said. “We are deeply imbedded in the middle of residential area with farms and subdivisions, and it’s not an appropriate place for a concert venue with alcohol. I find it puzzling that [Jackson] says she is doing this to preserve rural integrity, but nothing about a concert, alcohol venue screams rural farm or rural integrity. It’s really disruptive.”
Sullivan, Rich and other neighbors are in favor of the agriculturally related activities permits, though.
“Those are the kinds of things that have actually been occurring there for over 20 years, and I spoke in support of [that permit],” Sullivan said.
Planning Commissioner Marty Luck said with the right regulations, the Painted Horse could be an asset to the city, but he thinks “things are beginning to change,” and the business could be transforming into something “more commercial.”
Jackson and her attorney, Smith, conceded the Uncorked concert series is perhaps a more intensive use than other events, but they have already opted to hold off on more concerts going beyond those scheduled through the end of this year. However, they still want to honor their contract, which is why they have requested the permit.
If the City Council chooses to deny the indoor/outdoor festival or event permit, Jackson said the Uncorked series will be forced to cancel its remaining scheduled events.
‘This isn’t Matlida’s’
Jackson and Smith said they want clarification on what is allowable under the permits versus the actual events the Painted Horse wants to host.
While certain stipulations of the permits allow for extended operating hours or added uses, the company wants to keep operations to what they have historically been, plus the remaining Uncorked schedule.
Fears that there will be an amphitheater, or that the Painted Horse is setting up to be another Matilda’s concert venue, are unfounded, Smith said. While it is seeking the same permit afforded to Matilda’s, Smith said Painted Horse’s events fall in the same light covered under the permit.
“This isn’t Matilda’s,” Smith said. “We proposed additional limitations, and it’s a much smaller operation, and intentionally so, to maintain that agricultural character that Milton is and loves to be.”
The Planning Commission meeting included a dizzying array of proposed limitations on the number of people allowed at certain times or for some events, but Smith fears that pinning down hard numbers is difficult on the Painted Horse because of the array of events held at the site. For instance, a birthday party could be taking place simultaneously with another small gathering, she said.
The next step, she said, is for her and Jackson to “simplify and tell our story,” and address the noise and traffic concerns of neighbors to let the company continue operating as it has.