Board stunts brewery’s growth

Observer photo by Jason Starr
Patrons enjoy the tasting room at Burlington Beer Company in Williston on Tuesday evening.

Owner: ‘We can’t turn people away’

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

A faulty Williston zoning regulation has become an obstacle to the growth of one of Williston’s micro-breweries.

The owner of the Burlington Beer Company wants to expand the brewery’s seating area for retail sales and food service to 2,500 square feet, to include an outdoor patio, at the front end of its production facility in an industrial zone off South Brownell Road.

Under one reading of Williston’s development bylaws, the brewery is entitled to that space. But after a hearing in late November, the Williston Development Review Board used a loose interpretation of the bylaw to restrict the brewery to less than 1,000 square feet — no larger than the combined restaurant and retail space it currently has.

The imprecise language in the bylaw needs fixing, Williston Senior Planner Matt Boulanger acknowledged. He brought the issue up during Tuesday’s meeting of the Williston Planning Commission.

“There is an issue with the way the bylaw is drafted,” he said. “There is a conflict we need to deal with.”

Under a strict reading of the regulation, the brewery is entitled to up 10 percent of the 51,000-square-foot building it shares with the indoor trampoline park, Get Air, not to exceed 1,500 square feet, for a beer and food service seating area.

In practice, however, town planners have limited that type of use — retail components of manufacturing facilities in industrial zones — to 10 percent of the space that the business actually leases in the building. Burlington Beer Company owner Joe Lemnah argued for a strict interpretation of the bylaw to measure the percentage from the whole building.

“The words mean something,” he told the board at its Nov. 28 meeting. “You can’t pick and choose which bylaws you want to follow and not follow.”

Board chairman Scott Reiley said the board does not want to be an obstacle to the brewery’s growth.

“We are not here to hold up business,” he said. “You are succeeding. We would like to help you succeed more.”

But after deliberating in a closed-door session, the board voted unanimously to measure the 10 percent allowance from the brewery’s 9,500-square-foot space within the building, leaving it no room for retail expansion.

The brewery’s request brought to light another issue with the bylaw. It allows a maximum of 1,000 square feet for retail sale of prepackaged goods as well as a maximum of 1,500 square feet for beer and food service seating. The brewery requested those be added to achieve the 2,500 square feet it was seeking.

Observer photo by Jason Starr
Williston’s Burlington Beer Company plans to double brewing capacity next year.

But the bylaw requires that the seating area be within the retail area. As Boulanger later pointed out: “You can’t put 1,500 into 1,000.”

Lemnah said during the November meeting that similar artisanal breweries in Burlington enjoy retail areas that are roughly 30 percent of their total manufacturing facility.

“Burlington is allowing their breweries to grow and be healthy the same way we would like to,” Lemnah said. “We can’t turn people away. We need to create a comfortable spot for them.”

At the brewery Tuesday evening, bartender John Tucci said the ruling is disappointing, but the brewery is following through on an expansion of its manufacturing capacity.

Lemnah said the company received a million dollar loan this year to double brewing capacity, which will result in a doubling of the brewery’s workforce. He expects to employ 24 full-time workers by the end of 2018.