County's recourse limited

Ray Stephens, owner of Trident Winery in Pine.

It is sour grapes for a Pine winemaker.

A judge ruled Trident Winery owner Ray Stephens violated a court order to stop wine sales at his home and ordered him to pay a $5,800 fine, $100 for each day he violated that order.

If Stephens does not comply with Judge Gary Scales’ instructions, he could end up in jail for contempt of court.

“You have got to play by the rules,” Scales told Stephens during the Sept. 28 court hearing in Payson, attended by a dozen or so Pine residents and neighbors of Stephens.

Stephens got into a battle with Gila County and neighbors after he closed his tasting room on Hardscrabble Road and re-located it to his home off Harps Way.

Stephens reportedly told one neighbor he was only going to do tastings and sell wine from his home until he found a new commercial space, but months passed as vehicles continued coming and going to Stephens’ home for wine tastings.

Stephens argued his state-approved Series 13 farm winery license lets him sell wine as well as offer tastings.

However, the conditional-use permit he got from Gila County for his home says the only thing he can do is produce wine. It does not permit sales.

At the recent hearing, Stephens argued he thought he could sell wine because the county’s use permit doesn’t explicitly say he cannot.

Prosecutor Jeff Dalton pointed out the license is pretty clear in what it allows Stephens to do.

County Community Development Director Scott Buzan said the CUP Stephens applied for in 2014 allows him to produce wine, but not sell it from his home. Stephens lives in a R-1 zone, the most restrictive zoning use in the county. It allows for single-family homes and seeks to preserve the peace and quiet, he said.

When the county got complaints that Stephens was selling wine out of his home, officials contacted the liquor license board, which sent an undercover state inspector to the property who bought a bottle of wine during a wine tasting in January.

Later contacted about this visit, Stephens reportedly said he was not sure why the man was sold wine.

On Aug. 1, Scales issued a temporary restraining order putting a stop to any sales on Stephens’ property and preventing Stephens from renting a yurt on Airbnb.

However, just days later, neighbors and county staff took pictures of Stephens’ placard off State Route 87 advertising a tasting room at his home.

Stephens denied having the sign out despite multiple photos presented to the court showing otherwise, including those taken by Deborah Fickel, a building/zoning inspector for the county and Randy Pluimer, chief building official for the county.

County code enforcement Jade Kaufman said she had also been monitoring all social media sites for the Trident Winery as well as the website. All those sites continued to advertise sales and wine tastings.

The state also presented evidence Trident Winery had put up Facebook posts asking customers to contact the county board of supervisors to help him reopen. The posts also stated the county had intentionally botched his paperwork to shut down all wineries in Gila County.

Buzan said he knows of no such conspiracy.

Dalton argued Stephens’ failure to follow the zoning regulations was reducing property values. He said one neighbor has already said she will move because of the extra traffic.

Scales cited “overwhelming” evidence Stephens violated the court orders by engaging selling wine and renting the yurt at his home.

Scales ordered Stephens to pay a $5,800 fine and to take down the yurt and tree house, built without the proper permits.

Stephens said he had no way to pay the fine since his business was being shut down. Scales said Stephens could continue to make wine in his basement, he could just not sell it there.

A compliance hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 19.

Stephens currently has his home listed for sale.

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