Does King County have it out for small breweries?
When Melissa Earl opened Lumber House Brewery with her husband in 2014, she was fulfilling one of her life’s goals.
Located on seven rural acres in Hobart, just east of Maple Valley, the brewery and taproom represented a paradise for beer and nature fans alike.
But after Lumber House had been in business for two-and-a-half years, King County forced the brewery’s taproom to shut down due to supposed land use code violations. Weary of going back-and-forth with county employees for over a year, Earl told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show that the county has now issued its latest excuse.
The county is now claiming, according to Earl, that the approval letters issued to Lumber House for its liquor license application “were not actually approval letters” — despite the fact that the state finds them legitimate.
Unclear communication with Lumber House Brewery
Lumber House’s story shows a recent trend for small breweries, wineries, and cideries throughout unincorporated King County. In February, Earl told Dori that the county’s 2015 Wine and Beverage Study of Sammamish Valley — a study released after Lumber House was already up and running — caused a re-interpretation of county regulations, with the result that many mom-and-pop tasting rooms are now facing forced closure.
According to Earl, the county failed to communicate the new regulations to all businesses with all types of liquor licenses. The list of regulations that Lumber House received, Earl said, “was only for winery liquor licenses.”
“Unfortunately there was a huge gap … If you know about liquor licenses in Washington state, there are many different kinds of licenses you can have.”
The liquor license that Lumber House has — or at least, thought it had — is called a microbrewery license, which allows the business not only to serve, but also to create, beer on the premises.
“We had a little bit of a different license in that regard, which made us a little more unique, and they didn’t really know how to handle it,” Earl said. “We’ve found that they haven’t been able to communicate to liquor licenses residing within their constituency on any kind of updates, changes. And that’s why they are now coming at us.”
The county claimed it notified breweries of a new permit that became a requirement in 2016. However, Earl said that the county’s communication on this permit was very hard to understand. Trying to go about the process the right way, Earl called the county with questions on the county’s “very unclear” online FAQ page.
“The woman [from the county] said, ‘Oh you’re right that is unclear, let me start changing the FAQ right now.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, — don’t change the FAQ. You need to give me the information the FAQ is built off of,'” Earl recalled.
Now she is left with more questions than answers about exactly how democratically the King County government is run.
“What study was done to give a pilot program the right to function in our constituency without a vote?” Earl said. “That’s concerning to me. Why were the people not allowed to vote?”
Lack of King County Council response
Earl had hoped that elected county representatives would support Lumber House and other breweries in the same situation. However, Earl said that County District 3 Councilmember Kathy Lambert — who represents the Hobart area — has “basically said she doesn’t want anything to do with this” to Lumber House and at least one other brewery.
“I can’t believe that that’s how citizens of King County are being treated when they’re calling with a distressing concern,” Earl said.
She is especially disappointed because Councilmember Lambert routinely refers to herself as a former small business owner and an advocate of business owners in her district.
“What she claims to stand for, unincorporated King County, is not the case when it comes to the craft industry,” Earl said.