Amherst board to review winery expansion project

AMHERST – A zoning board hearing on major expansion plans for LaBelle Winery drew about 130 people last week, including residents of the nearby Holly Hill neighborhood who are opposed, as well as many people who said the winery’s expansion would be a boon for the town and the area.

The four-hour hearing took place in the theater room at Souhegan High School because of the expected crowd.

LaBelle’s owners, Amy LaBelle and Cesar Arboleda, want to build a distillery with tasting room, as well as an inn with a restaurant and other facilities on 45 acres across from their winery complex on Route 101.

They need two variances from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The crucial variance is to allow those uses in the town’s Northern Transitional Zone.

People who live in the Holly Hill neighborhood told the board they are concerned about how the development will affect their neighborhood, saying it will bring noise, traffic and excessive water use.

“This plan doesn’t look rural,” said Bruce Derienze, of Holly Hill Drive, according to meeting minutes.

Kazem Haji-Aghajani, of Holly Hill Drive, said his own analysis shows LaBelle’s use of water can’t be sustained.

Others, including the head of the Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce, called it a perfect development for the gateway to Amherst.

“Lodging is a major issue for this area,” said chamber President Tracy Hutchins.

Architect Rolf Biggers said he will keep the property’s original character, adding that people want to be able to live and work and play here and not go to Nashua or Manchester for everything.

Many people noted that less attractive developments could be built on the property.

LaBelle spoke, addressing letters asking how the complex will benefit Amherst. She said it will bring dining and cultural options, and taxes and jobs as well as historical preservation of two old buildings on the property and conservation of open space.

“The inn we envision will be upscale and cozy,” providing world-class service and attention to detail, she said.

Former selectman John D’Angelo noted that many of the issues brought up are the concern of the Planning Board or the state and said LaBelle has done a great job so far.

Consultants submitted reports to the board including a hydrological study, traffic study, odor analysis, and noise and property value impacts.

A traffic report showed the maximum increase on Route 101 would be eastbound on weekends, 7.8 percent.

F&M Appraisal looked at two comparable facilities and predicted no diminution of values to abutting properties. The hydrologist recommended conditions of approval.

The other variance being sought by LaBelle – for the inn to exceed the 40-foot height limit by 12.5 feet – is considered very secondary to the one involving use of the property.

The board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30, for deliberations, again in the high school theater, at 7 p.m. No new testimony or evidence is allowed.

LaBelle and her husband built the Route 101 complex of restaurant and winery about three years ago after starting the winery in their Amherst home.

The property across the road is the last remaining portion of Bragdon Farm, which once covered 183 acres. The Bragdon family donated the Bragdon hill sledding area to the town years ago.

Nancy Keirstead, representing the Richard Bragdon Trust, told the board that they’ve had prospective buyers, including a veterinary clinic and professional offices, but all the feedback was the same: Using the steep front of the property would be expensive and limited, and no one wants to live right on Route 101.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or