Amid neighbors’ complaints about noise and traffic, Fort Hill Brewery to seek amended permit



Last modified: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

EASTHAMPTON — Amid neighbors’ complaints over noise and traffic, Fort Hill Brewery plans to seek an amendment to its original 2011 permit — which states it may not have a pub or retail component — to more accurately reflect the business it conducts today.

Fort Hill owner Eric Berzins will petition the Planning Board to amend the permit at its Oct. 27 meeting in the next chapter of a saga that was recounted during a two-hour public hearing at a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing Thursday night.

That public hearing will continue on Nov. 12 in anticipation of a decision by the Planning Board.

Several of the brewery’s Fort Hill Road neighbors have complained for months about noise and traffic, and allege that live music and serving pints of beer at the brewery violate its city permit.

Fort Hill is licensed by the state as a farmer-brewery.

In 2014 the state modified its regulations for that type of license to allow, for the first time, holders to obtain a locally issued pouring license, which allows for beer to be sold for on-site consumption.

That December, Fort Hill was issued a pouring permit by the city. It was then issued an entertainment license in May 2015.

Neighbors say the entertainment license and pouring permit never should have been issued because they were inconsistent with the brewery’s original 2011 permit.

One neighbor in July filed a complaint asking city Building Commissioner Joseph Fydenkevez to consider those allegations.

Fydenkevez in September determined that the brewery is operating legally under its permits and licenses and declined to take enforcement action.

What’s permitted

The neighbor, Douglas Russell, who has since died, filed an appeal with the Zoning Board of Appeals. His appeal is being carried on by Fort Hill Road resident Bert Thurber.

On Thursday, the ZBA was tasked with considering whether Fydenkevez was right in his finding that Fort Hill committed no wrongdoing.

Chairman John Atwater told the capacity crowd that discussion was to be limited only to the soundness of Fydenkevez’s decision. But much of the input offered by a total of 17 speakers was off-topic — remarks on Berzins’ character, his neighborliness, Fort Hill Road’s rural character or lack thereof, and the impact a business-unfriendly decision by the ZBA might have on the city’s economy.

“The special permit is what governs what’s allowed on the property,” board member Margaret Solis said after an exchange between Thurber and the board members over the extent of the board’s purview.

But the interpretation of the intent of that document is in the eye of the beholder.

“What a pouring permit would permit ... would exceed what he was allowed under the permit issued in 2011,” Thurber said.

Berzins has said that a tasting room and retail component — selling of T-shirts and beer growlers — was part of the original plan that he submitted to the Planning Board when it considered his special permit application. He said the board members knew this when granting him the permit and the permit’s exclusion of retail was written in error.

“The brewer, Mr. Berzins, seems not to remember what it says, and seems to remember the (Planning Board) meeting differently from us,” Thurber said.

“ ‘A brewing and processing facility,’ ” Thurber said, reading from a copy of the special permit. “That’s pretty straightforward language.”

Berzins said he went by the book in getting regulatory approval for all of his brewery’s activities.

“I operate in one of the most highly regulated businesses in the U.S.,” Berzins said. That includes getting proper permits and licenses from six regulatory bodies — federal, state and local. “We have been operating in a legal manner.”

Fort Hill’s attorney, Rebecca M. Thibault of Springfield, disagreed with the neighbors’ accusations.

“We support the building commissioner’s decision that the brewery is not in violation of its special permit,” she said.

She said Fort Hill’s farmer-brewery pouring permit is a legal extension of the tasting room that it was allowed under the special permit, after the state changed its rules in 2014.

Thibault said it’s wrong for neighbors to assume that the Licensing Board did not know the details of the special permit when it issued the pouring permit in 2014.

“The Licensing Board may have just taken a different interpretation of what that permit says,” she said.

“Pub” is clearly defined as a pub brewery under one section of state law, while farmer-breweries like Fort Hill are regulated under another, she said.

And she said that the reference to “retail” in Fort Hill’s permit could have been in reference to a “package store, bar, or a reference to retail zoning ordinances,” she said. None of those ordinances regulates a tasting room or breweries with a pouring permit.

But regardless, Thibault said, it could be wise for Fort Hill to seek an amendment to the original special permit to clarify its ambiguous language.

Public comment

Fort Hill Road resident Melissa Knybel argued that the Planning Board was not considering the state’s pub brewery definition when issuing Fort Hill its license. By prohibiting the brewery from operating a “pub,” she said, it was banning the type of beer drinking that currently takes place.

“It was talking about use of the building,” she said.

And Thurber said neighbors are not in disagreement with the legality of Fort Hill’s tasting room, just whether that tasting room is allowed to sell pints rather than provide free samples.

Kathy Truehart, of Fort Hill Road, said she moved to the street because she thought it would be a “beautiful place to raise my daughter” with her husband.

But with all the noise from the brewery, she said she has to turn her TV “up to 40 decibels” in order to hear it. She also alleged that brewery customers drinking beer outside violates its license.

“I’ve got pictures of people walking around their cars holding beers,” she said.

Neighbor Joyce Pietraszkiewicz said that outdoor activities effectively turn Fort Hill’s yard into a beer garden. Fort Hill applied for a permit for a beer garden earlier this year but dropped the application after hearing complaints from neighbors.

She said a post of the brewery’s Facebook page suggested that its patrons come to enjoy the music while sitting on the grass.

“To me that’s a beer garden,” she said.

Jane Thurber, Bert Thurber’s wife, said the city should have more concern over the traffic issues on Fort Hill Road. She said calls to have signs placed about the speed limit and the bike path crossing were either unanswered or brushed off by city officials.

Dave Lepine, of East Street, said he’s helped the brewery since day one both in having conversations with Berzins and constructing some of the brewery.

He said “Eric’s always been a man of great concern for his neighbors,” and that he “flipped the whole plan upside down” in order to address their concerns during the brewery’s early stages.

Lepine said the ZBA should recognize the volatility of state regulation on the beer industry.

“The craft industry of beer is a growing thing. There are times when it changes overnight,” he said. “Because its a new industry, there’s sometimes things that need to be clarified.”

City Councilor Daniel D. Rist, who said he was not speaking on behalf of the council, said he was offering input to “defend what I hope is a business-friendly government” and to defend Fort Hill.

“I think we need to look at this as a city government from the whole city’s perspective. And that is why I hope you will consider business as important to the city as a whole and important to the city’s taxpayers,” he said.

Rist said he hopes the amendment will take “retail” out of the special permit, which he said is “the crux of the matter.”

“I would argue that it’s not a pub, it’s certainly not a bar” because of the brewery’s limited hours, he said.

He said the Planning Board meeting would provide a good opportunity for neighbors’ concerns to be heard. “That’s the proper place for this to be settled.”

City Councilor Salem Derby, who said he spoke also as a citizen, said he had faith that the Planning Board’s process in issuing the special permit was thorough.

He said the ZBA should consider the economic development of the city when making its decision. “I think this is a critical piece,” he said.

Business tax income, he said, is an important driver to services like street-paving and education.

“If we don’t have any growth in the city, we’re not going to be able to do that,” he said.

The board voted unanimously to continue the public hearing to at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 12 in the Municipal Building. Berzins will petition the Planning Board on Oct. 27 to amend his original special permit.

Reactions

After the meeting, Truehart said the board’s decision to wait for the Planning Board meeting before issuing a decision was “unfair.”

“We’re getting shoved around again,” she said. Truehart and other Fort Hill Road residents said they’ve been unhappy with what they see as city officials’ desire to keep out of the dispute.

Jane Thurber said she was “OK” with the decision to continue the hearing.

“I would like to see more thoughts expressed,” she said. “I would like to talk about other issues” beyond the purview of the ZBA’s hearing.

Bert Thurber said he’s unsure whether he’ll speak at the Planning Board meeting.

“I can’t render a quick judgment” about whether he’ll continue to fight, he said. “We’ll probably be in attendance.”

Berzins welcomed the board’s decision as an opportunity for compromise between Fort Hill and its neighbors.

“I’d like to think over the course of time through discussion we’ll be able to find a happy medium,” he said.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.


 


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