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Businessman envisions winery on Niagara River Land designation changed to agricultural district

Businessman Richard A. Hastings said last week he was considering joining the ranks of Niagara County's winemakers.

Earlier this month, the County Legislature granted Hastings' request to add three parcels of vacant land he owns along Lower River Road to an agricultural district.

"It should offer him a measure of protection to carry out normal agricultural practices in a residential zone," said Paul Lehman, Cornell Cooperative Extension agent in Lockport.

Hastings owns numerous buildings on Main Street in Niagara Falls and Lockport Street in Youngstown, as well as the Frontier House and the Silo restaurant in Lewiston.

The three parcels here, totaling nearly 103 acres, could become vineyards for a possible winery, Hastings said.

"We did the soil studies," he explained. "You can adapt a root stock to the soil. It's going to take some drainage. . . . It will take two years of land preparation [before planting grapes]. I think it's a good idea that needs to be studied."

Hastings, 67, said he was interested in a winery in part as an opportunity for his two "French-American grandchildren," ages 5 and 7. His son, he said, married a Frenchwoman who comes from a winemaking background.

"At his age, it might just be sound financial planning," Lehman said.

Hastings didn't deny it, but he also said he was well aware of the growing success and popularity of Niagara County wines.

"Prior planning prevents poor performance," Hastings said. "I'm finding out what's recommended, what the market is."

Hastings said he bought the land from 1985 to 1990, intending to develop a residential subdivision. "It was killed in the '80s," he said. "I don't see any residential growth in New York."

"If you look at the aerial photos, you can still see the patterns of old orchards," Lehman said.

Hastings' land lies on both sides of Lower River Road, and Lehman said, "It's kind of neat to have agricultural land touching the Niagara River."

Hastings said an old estate home on the property will be part of the winery. It was built a century ago by a financial backer of the old Schoellkopf Power Plant in Niagara Falls.

"When I go to bed at night, I look across the river and see the construction of another winery on the Canadian side," he said. "There's a lot of potential."

"We get a lot of inquiries from wannabes, not just people who want to sink millions of dollars in a winery, but people who want to grow wine grapes and sell them," said Lehman, the extension agent, said. "It's a free market. With the economy the way it is, who's to say what's wise investment?"

Lehman said land in an agricultural district is eligible for property tax breaks, but only if it produces products worth at least $10,000 and has more than seven acres under cultivation.

Hastings said he's been using Lehman as an adviser. "I can't say enough about Paul Lehman. He's probably the best there is in this area," Hastings added.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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