Chesterton Tribune



BZA continues public hearing on distillery at old Westchester Lanes

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Both the Chesterton Board of Zoning Appeals and department heads entertained specific concerns going into last week’s public hearing on a use variance which would permit Vern Brown, owner of the Chesterton Brewery, to establish an artisan distillery at the old Westchester Lanes.

Brown, though, appears to have given the right answers to their pointed questions, and though members voted unanimously to continue the public hearing to next month’s meeting, Aug. 27, they did so chiefly to massage a list of conditions which would be attached to the variance.

In fact, the petition for a use variance was the first of two considered by the BZA with respect to the old Westchester Lanes, 124 N. Eighth St. The distillery itself--plus a tasting room and offices--would occupy only the former lounge area of the building. The former bowling alley--which has been stripped out--would be used  for the seasonal storage of boats, RVs, campers, and other vehicles, should the BZA be of a mind to grant a special exception as provided by the Zoning Ordinance.

Between the distillery and the storage unit would be built a three-hour fire wall and an appropriate fire-rated door. And that’s the crux of the concerns expressed by members as well as by Building Commissioner Mark O’Dell and Fire Chief John Jarka: the storage of highly flammable spirits on the premises.

Brown, a process engineer with 30 years of experience, some of it on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, told the board that he would use a 125-gallon still and an added piece of equipment that many larger distilleries don’t use: a spirit safe, which would store the volatile vapors and liquid itself until it can be evacuated into another container. “It’s for our safety,” he said, “not required by the town. We paid a bit extra for a spirit safe.” Further: no more than 120 gallons of spirit would be stored on site at any one time (although Brown is also requesting permission to store an additional 120 gallons on the other side of the fire wall, in the vehicle storage area).

“This would be an artisan distillery,” Brown added. “Very, very small. We’re still in proof of concept, which is why we’re looking to lease.”

In the distilling of rum, vodka, moonshine, and gin, Brown explained, 125 gallons of product go into the still and 10 gallons come out into the spirit safe, six of those 10 gallons being drinkable. Even with an around-the-clock operation, he would never be able to produce more than 20 gallons in a day. But Brown said that under his current business plan he would only distill once a week. “I don’t know how the town will support a distillery. I don’t know how it will go.”

Brown noted that he is in the process of applying for both a state and federal distillery license. Such a license would allow him to sell bottles of spirits on the premises and to serve them as well in a tasting room. But only his brand of spirits, not another distillery’s. Brown’s attorney, Greg Babcock, noted for his part that the building “has a prior history of having a three-way license”; that “this particular use is a good use for this location,” adjacent to and across the street from I-1-zoned Republic Service facilities; and that a detailed list of conditions would be attached both to the use variance for the distillery and the special exception for the vehicle storage area.

No one spoke in favor of, or in opposition to, either petition. But O’Dell and Jarka had questions. Stipulated: that Brown has no intention of storing more than 120 gallons of spirits in the distillery at any one time, since any more than that would technically make the distillery a “high hazard occupancy” and require the installation of a sprinkler system. But how, they wanted to know, would Brown know exactly how much he’s distilled, how much is in the spirit safe, how much in bottles in the tasting room?

“There’s a trust issue here,” O’Dell said. “How do I as Building Commissioner and John as Fire Chief enforce this?”

President Richard Riley suggested that a workable enforcement protocol could be established. “We face enforcement all the time,” he said. “I think that’s a good question but not enough to deny the petition. We have to figure out how to deal with this.”

“If you grant this variance and God forbid something happens, we’ve laid out our concerns,” Jarka replied.

Actually, however, there would be a way for O’Dell and Jarka to keep tabs on the distillery, Brown suggested. Under the terms of the federal distillery license, he would be required to file on-line reports, with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), at every stage of the process, from production to storage to packaged account, by date and gallonage. “The moment you finish distilling, you log it with the TTB,” Brown said.

“Would that satisfy the concerns?” Riley asked. “If that document has a name and the proper nomenclature, can that be put in as a condition?”

As far as enforcement goes, O’Dell said that TTB reporting would satisfy his concerns. But he pressed for the installation of a sprinkler system regardless.

Installing a sprinkler system for the whole building, Brown responded, would cost around $100,000. Just sprinkling the distillery itself would cost around $50,000. “That’s 50 grand I don’t have,” he said.

At that point in the proceeding, Associate Julie Paulson indicated that a continuance of the public hearing would probably be a good idea. “I’m uncomfortable working out additional conditions on the fly,” she told the BZA.

Member Joe Ackerman agreed. “I"m supportive of the concept, but I feel it’s important to have these matters buttoned down,” he said.

Member Joel Carney agreed as well. “I want all these technical things spelled out,” he said.

Members accordingly voted unanimously to continue the public hearing to their next meeting.

Another Continued Public Hearing

In other business, members also voted unanimously to continue to their next meeting Earl and Kathy Clark’s petition for two variances to permit the construction of a larger garage on their property at 223 S. Eighth St.: one to increase the maximum lot coverage of 30 percent to 41 percent, a variance of 11 percent; and another to reduce the side-yard setback from eight to three feet, a variance of five feet.

It was determined, however, that notices of the public hearing were not sent in a timely fashion to property owners within 300 feet of their residence, hence the continuance to Aug. 27, so that the Clarks can re-send the notices. “It’s a statutory requirement that notices be sent out again with a new date in a timely fashion,” Paulson said.

Variance Granted

Meanwhile, members voted unanimously to grant Michael and Melissa Topors’ petition for a variance to permit the installation of an above-ground swimming pool on their property at 3525 Drivers Way: to reduce the side-yard setback from 10 feet to four, a variance of six feet.

“This is pretty straightforward to me,” Carney said.

“Yeah, I have no issue with this petition,” Ackerman added.

At a public hearing which preceded the vote, no one spoke in favor of the petition and no one in opposition.


Posted 7/28/2020




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