Liquor distillery on horizon for Chapel Hill?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

No one is suggesting that Chapel Hill is going to be the new Lynchburg, but the town might get a bit closer with the proposal of a craft distillery.

Ryan Thomas appeared before the Chapel Hill Planning Commission Monday night seeking a zoning change that would allow the project to move forward.

Town zoning laws do not currently specify a distillery among any of the permitted uses, so an addition to the regulations would be required.

Thomas and his partner are Nolensville residents who are looking to start this business after years in other fields.

Thomas said that one lesson he’d had from master distillers was the importance of a distillery’s location and that Chapel Hill felt like the perfect place.

Their Wheeler’s Raid Distillery has looked at three possible sites in town, all of which are zoned for either business or manufacturing.

The Wheeler’s Raid name references the Civil War cavalry raid into Tennessee by Confederate General Joseph Wheeler during which the Battle of Farmington occurred.

Their preferred location is an already existing building on Unionville Road across from the Marshall County CO-OP.

They have begun the stringent federal application process in order to obtain a distillery permit, but need a physical address to continue the process.

Thomas estimated the end of 2017 or start of 2018 before operations could begin, once the permitting process was complete.

A 500-gallon still is currently being constructed for the operation, and the pair is working with an engineer to meet federal fire and security requirements.

Their business plans call for the production of both gin and bourbon, with gin being the initial retail product while the bourbon produced ages.

Thomas said that he hoped within three years to have 3,000 barrels of product available for distribution.

The plan also includes a tasting room and retail shop for their spirits and assorted merchandise.

Small scale, craft distilleries have boomed in popularity since a 2009 state law easing their establishment.

Several have popped up in the state since then, including Tenn South Distillery in Lynnville and Southern Pride Distillery in Fayetteville.

Ultimately, the commission proposed adding distilleries to the permitted uses in both M1 manufacturing zones and B2 commercial zones.

The process will require further action by the commission and the Board of Aldermen before being finalized.

The possible distillery was not the only item on the agenda of the two-hour meeting.

This session of the commission was largely informational. Final votes on the requests will be scheduled for the meeting in May.

Three properties for which zoning changes were proposed were discussed.

All three requests, on Maple Street, North Horton Highway, and six lots on Unionville Road between the town hall and the CO-OP, would move from commercial zoning to residential if approved.

The town’s planner, Jim Lech, said that in 10 years he had rarely ever seen requests for property zoned for commercial use to be changed to residential use, but here were three such requests in one meeting.

Town Administrator Mark Graves said that was an outcome of a hot housing market in Chapel Hill, where developers were looking to build homes on any available land in order to take advantage.

The board also considered two additions to the town’s subdivision regulations.

The first, requiring the addition of sidewalks to new developments, was recommended unanimously after some discussion.

The second, mandating underground utilities for new subdivisions, met with more resistance.

“It’s a large step,” said Isaac Zimmerle, who serves on the commission and is also a builder and developer.

He argued for a compromise based on the size of the development in order to allow smaller builders to compete on costs with the large subdivision developers.

The concern was cost added to development leading to a pause in the pace of building within the town.

“I haven’t been in a community that’s done it and later regretted it,” said Lech.

Other members of the commission also thought that pushing ahead with a requirement for fully buried utilities now would be in the best long term interests of the town.

Ultimately, the commission asked Lech to write and present two versions of the proposal to them in May. One for entirely underground utilities and a compromise that would allow a central aboveground line for electricity in a development between five and 15 lots with underground lines from the central poles.

The town’s sign ordinance was also on the agenda. The ordinance will need additions and clarifications before being implemented.

The company that owns the billboard on Highway 99 would like to upgrade it to include digital displays, but the regulations as they are currently written are not clear on the requirements.