By Scott Nishimura
Wickedness crept into the Fort Worth Zoning Commission’s deliberations about a proposed whiskey distillery on the grounds of the Glen Garden Country Club Wednesday, along with the usual secular concerns about traffic, land use, pollution and crime.
“We don’t think drinking whiskey is something you ought to be happy about and celebrate,” the Rev. Carl Pointer, a Rolling Hills resident and longtime Southeast Fort Worth activist, told the commission. “We know some people do, but some folks are a little more conservative. Some folks’ lives are little more Bible-based.”
Referring to the projections of thousands of annual visitors to the grounds of the historic Southeast Fort Worth club, which the owners of Fort Worth’s Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. propose to redevelop into a distillery, events center, and visitor attraction, Pointer said, “I don’t want 10,000 people who’ve been sharing, tasting, drinking, driving through my neighborhood.”
The Zoning Commission voted 4-4 – a recommendation to deny, under the city ordinance – and sent the matter to the City Council, which will vote July 15.
“We need to get this into the City Council, in a political arena,” Wanda Conlin, the zoning commissioner who represents the district, said before making the motion to approve the rezoning, which would allow a distillery, related buildings such as aging barns, lodging, and retail.
Conlin’s motion, if approved, would have required the filing of a site plan, with the locations of buildings, traffic flow, landscaping, lighting and other features laid out. Firestone and Robertson, pending the zoning case outcome, had not committed to the expense of a site plan. They’ve also plan to significantly pare the number of golf holes on the course, where Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson learned to play, but haven’t committed yet to how many.
While residents raised matters such as traffic, smell, mold, and drinking and driving, several homeowners and ministers – the area around the club has numerous churches – spoke of sin and not wanting an alcohol-producing facility.
“Some of us still believe in God,” Pointer said, calling it “repulsive” and “an insult to our faith” to put up a distillery across the street from one church in particular, St. Timothy’s, an Anglican parish on Mitchell Boulevard.
Bishop Keith Ackerman of St. Timothy’s, who was traveling in Philadephia and not at the zoning hearing, said by phone, “honestly, I suspect that Anglicans don’t think as much about alcohol as some churches might.”
But the broader point, he said, is that there are some 60 churches around the club, many of them are very conservative, and communication from City Hall about the proposal heading into the zoning hearing was limited.
“Where there’s an absence of information, people can create their own reality,” he said.
St. Timothy’s, which hasn’t taken a stance on the distillery, has offered itself as a “focal point to pray” and hosted a Q&A session on the case with Council member Kelly Allen Gray, Ackerman said.
Gray said, following the zoning vote, that she’ll oppose the case when it appears before the City Council.
“I have always stood with the neighborhoods,” she said in an interview. “I really and truly wish they could come to a compromise so the project could go forward potentially.”
Much of the community’s issues could be dealth with in a set site plan, she said.
“When you don’t know how it’s going to be situated, it’s going to be a very big concern,” she said. “I think it could be a bigger concern than alcohol.”
She stressed the distillery “would not be the liquor store. You can’t just go there and buy TX Whiskey.”
Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson – partners in Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., which started producing their TX Blended Whiskey two years ago from a location on West Vickery Boulevard on the Near Southside that they’ve quickly outgrown – said they’re optimistic for the upcoming council vote.
“We were disappointed, but encouraged,” Firestone said as he conferred with Robertson and their attorney Jim Schell in a City Hall cranny after the vote.
“Despite that it goes up for a recommendation for denial, it’s a tie vote,” Schell said.
Residents of neighborhoods around the country club packed the City Council chambers for the zoning hearing. Most were against the rezoning, arguing it will lower property values, but several spoke for the rezoning.
The club’s golf business has struggled for years, and its owners say they’ve been unable to find a buyer who wants to operate it as a golf course.
Firestone and Robertson plan to convert it to a visitor draw they say will be reminiscent of Kentucky’s bucolic distilleries and California’s winery estates. The West Vickery facility, which would continue to produce spirits alongside the Glen Garden facility, already hosts numerous events, including two campaign kickoffs for Mayor Betsy Price.
Firestone and Robertson said at the zoning hearing they plan $15 million in improvements and that the development would ultimately raise property values in the neighborhoods.
It would be open to the public for tastings, tours, special events like weddings, and conferences. They expect to retain a limited number of golf holes around the visitors center and distillery buildings, which they expect to orient around a scenic lake that exists on the golf course.
The business would employ 30 immediately, they said, and “over time, we’ll be hosting tens of thousands of tourists (who will spend) money on food, lodging and spirits,” Robertson said at the zoning hearing.
He and Firestone said they’ll route all traffic from the Mitchell Boulevard thoroughfare and close off the neighborhood entrance, features that could be set down as requirements in a site plan.
Firestone and Robertson stressed their establishment is not a bar or retail store. While it would be open on certain days for tastings and tours, retail sales would be limited by state law to two bottles per month per person. The rest of the distillery’s production, by law, would be required to be sold through distributors.
The country club already serves alcohol, they noted. They also said they don’t admit minors.
On fungus risk, which property owners on the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail are suing the distilleries over, Robertson said the science is unclear and he noted the distilleries in question are more than 100 years old. His distillery has not had a fungus problem, he said, but if it did, he assured the zoning commission the partnership would take steps to eradicate it.
And on the smells that go with whiskey production, they said those are minimal.
Conlin and commissioners Will Northern, the mayor’s at-large appointee; Gaye Reed, who represents the Near Southside District 9; and Charles Edmonds, who represents the North and East Side District 4 voted to approve the rezoning.
Chairman Nick Genua, who represents the West Side and far North District 7; and commissioners Melissa McDougall, who represents the East Side District 5; Bob West, who represents the West/Southwest District 3; and Carlos Flores, who represents the North Side District 2, voted against.
McDougall said she liked the idea of a distillery in East Fort Worth, but “I just don’t like it in the middle of this neighborhood.”
Genua said the concept is “very intriguing to me. I see investment, I see jobs, I see tax revenue, I see more people coming to Fort Worth. But the I issue I come up with is where it’s located.”
The group opposed to the rezoning said it wants to retain the A-21 residential zoning, which would require half-acre lots if subdivided. The City Council put the zoning in place in recent years to help protect the neighborhood.
But commissioners wondered what the realistic expectations for redevelopment are, if the golf course fails and the city turns the Firestone & Robertson plan away.
“I don’t think there’s any chance from a real estate standpoint that it’s going to be developed A-21,” Edmonds said. “I don’t think there’s a market in that particular area. I don’t think it’s going to continue to be a country club, it’s not going to be a golf course. So you have to ask yourself, is this a reasonable plan.”
West said he was concerned “this is a piece of land being taken out of residential. It just seems to me it’s in the middle of a residential neighborhood, it’s a significant intrusion into a residential neighborhood.”