After mostly missing out on the nation’s exploding craft-beer industry, Virginia’s largest jurisdiction is making a play to become a regional hub for local brews by eliminating some zoning red tape.
Fairfax County wants to make craft beverages a “by-right” use in commercial and industrial areas, a change officials say would reduce the local economy’s dependence on federal spending and inject new tax revenue into the county’s overstretched budget.
“This is something that we’d like to see grow in Fairfax County,” said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. which has scheduled a Nov. 16 public hearing before the planning commission on the proposed change and a Dec. 6 hearing before the full board. “It’s an industry that is popular.”
Craft beers represent a $1 billion market in the state, according to the state Craft Brewers Guild.
To cater to that growing thirst, several other Northern Virginia municipalities have recently changed their zoning policies to allow certain neighborhoods to host breweries and brew pub restaurants, where customers can sample what’s brewed onsite.
Loudoun County has lured 21 breweries in recent years, turning the fast-growing Washington suburb into a popular destination for beer tourism, officials there say. In Prince William County, there are four breweries, and an additional six are getting ready to launch operations, officials say. Arlington County has three breweries, while Alexandria’s Port City Brewing Co. is one of the state’s largest craft operations.
Fairfax County, in contrast, has just seven small breweries, even though its population of 1.1 million residents is roughly equal to those four jurisdictions combined.
The proposed amendment to Fairfax’s zoning ordinance is modeled after the zoning rules in Loudoun and Prince William. It would allow breweries that produce up to 15,000 barrels of beer per year to operate in most busy retail areas, neighborhoods zoned for light- to heavy-intensity industrial use and some planned residential and commercial districts.
The change, subject to revisions, would open those same zones to liquor distilleries that produce a maximum of 36,000 gallons per year and to makers of wine, cider or mead that produce up to 5,000 gallons annually.
County officials say inspiration for the amendment lies in the frustrations experienced by the owners of the Caboose Brewing Co. as they worked to open a brewery and restaurant at the Mosaic District shopping center in Merrifield.
Matt Greer, co-owner of Caboose, said the 6,000-square-foot facility that is expected to open early next year would complement his company’s first brewery and restaurant in Vienna, which opened last year and is popular on weekends.
But the process of getting all the necessary approvals from Fairfax has been “a little bit painful,” Greer said, citing a $16,000 fee his company had to pay to apply for special-exception zoning approval to sell food at the brewery. “That’s the amount of money it takes just to get their attention.”
The proposed zoning amendment has generated concern over how an influx of new breweries would impact traffic, noise and quality of life in the county.
Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) said she worries that the 15,000 barrels-per-year limit could open the door to larger breweries that generate a lot of extra traffic. Most craft breweries produce about 3,000 barrels annually.
“We need to make sure that if we make a change there has to be a way of mitigating what the impact could be,” Smyth said, adding that she nonetheless supports the idea of attracting an industry that could bring extra revenue.
A separate zoning fight in Fairfax last year led to a statewide law restricting farm breweries and wineries, which use ingredients grown onsite to make their products.
Residents in the town of Clifton objected to a proposed business called Loudmouth Brewery, saying the farm operation would bring too much car traffic to a mostly secluded part of the county that is home to the popular Paradise Springs Winery.
Under a new name — Two Silos — the same owners are preparing to open a brewery, plus a farm-to-table restaurant and concert venue on the roughly eight-acre site of the historic Thomassan Barn, just outside of Manassas in Prince William County.
Meredith Arnest, director of operations for the Villagio Hospitality Group, which owns Two Silos, said Prince William officials “came out to us and said they were interested” after the Loudmouth fight was over.
Lawmakers in Richmond have since made it harder for farm breweries and wineries to open in “residential conservation districts,” which are areas zoned for agricultural use but occupied by homes. The law, which took effect in July, says beverage makers who want to open in those areas must seek special-exception approval from their local jurisdictions unless they have state liquor licenses or pending license applications.
Sean Hunt, who opened the Mustang Sally Brewing Co. in Chantilly earlier this year, said he supports eliminating the need for special exceptions for new breweries in Fairfax wherever possible. His brewery aims to become a powerhouse in the region. Located in a corner of an industrial park, it aims to produce as many as 30,000 barrels per year.
But Hunt said it was “fatiguing” to get to this point, where nearby office workers stream into the brewery’s giant tasting room after work to sample Dortmunder lager — made with Virginia honey — or a vanilla porter flavored with locally roasted coffee beans.
The special-exception process — along with county and state inspections — took several months, he said, with government fees piling up before the brewery was able to open in May.
“We clearly did not get an incentive to build here,” Hunt said. “We know a lot of breweries that tried to set up around us and they just couldn’t make it.”
Barry Biggar, who heads Fairfax County’s tourist arm, Visit Fairfax, said he’s eager to market the county as a prime locale for specialty beers. “There’s an entire market worldwide of people who specifically go to a destination that has breweries,” he said.
With that in mind, Visit Fairfax is creating a tourism map of local breweries for those tourists. Currently, however, the map features several breweries located outside of Fairfax.
“It takes a while to catch up to your competitors,” Biggar said.