The Mason County Planning Commission gave Starving Artist Brewing Co. the OK on Tuesday to rezone as a microbrewery, giving owner Andy Thomas a sure sign that his goal to expand his Amber Township business are within reach.
“It’s honestly surreal,” Thomas told the Daily News on Wednesday. “That was not the anticipated outcome of that meeting — to our surprise and extreme gratitude.”
The planning commission had previously tabled discussion, referring Thomas to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to request a variance, because his property does not meet the 10-acre minimum required in the county ordinance for agribusinesses.
The ZBA denied the request on April 3, resulting in Thomas bringing the issue back to the planning commission. On Tuesday, the planners acknowledged that Thomas’ case was a special one based on new information — specifically, that Thomas received a license from the Liquor Control Commission (LCC) on Dec. 19, 2018, before the acreage minimums were enforceable.
“The main change is that the applicant has already received state license to operate as a microbrewery,” James Winczek, planning commission chair, said. “The local ordinances are subordinate to the state.”
Mason County Building and Zoning Director Brady Selner said the new findings “completely altered” the way the planning commission needed to look at the application.
“It seemed almost trivial at the time … but now we know it was pretty important,” Thomas said of the decision to have his license labeled as a microbrewery by the state’s LCC. “If the planning commission had denied our special land use permit based on the 10-acre requirement — with us having that on our license — then we would, at that point, have been in violation of Mason County zoning ordinance.”
“This was a game-changer on the 19th, because we can’t deny him that. If we hold him to the 10-acre standard, we deny him (the ability to run his business),” Janet Anderson said.
Dennis Dunlap agreed.
“The state has basically taken the planning commission’s ability to regulate this … by granting the license to the applicant,” he said. “This is a special circumstance.”
Not all commissioners agreed, however. Mike Shaw and Doug Robideaux suggesting that Thomas return to the ZBA, but a motion to that end past.
Anderson then made a motion to waive the 10-acre requirement in Thomas’ case because of the specifics of his circumstances, and the motion was supported by Tom Hooper.
The motion to waive the requirement for Thomas’ request was passed in a 5-2 vote, with Anderson, Hooper, Dunlap, Redmond and Winczek supporting and Shaw and Robideaux opposing.
The application is will be formally drafted into a resolution by the commission’s legal counsel, and officially approved on May 21.
When Thomas first brought his request before the planning commission on March 5, planners tabled the discussion and referred Thomas to the ZBA to seek a variance. The ZBA can grant a landowner permission to not abide by the literal standards of an ordinance, according to Selner.
The ZBA denied Thomas’ request on April 3, primarily based on the acreage minimum, but also because microbreweries in the county are required to reserve 2 acres for farming and harvesting.
In the time between that decision and Tuesday’s meeting, Thomas made arrangements to meet the farming criteria, purchasing hop plants and planning to harvest mulberries and raspberries on the property, as well as maple trees, for use in different Starving Artist brews.
Thomas went to Tuesday’s meeting with support from several members of the community, including the board of directors for the Momentum Business Plan Competition, which Starving Artist won in 2015.
Residents and neighbors also voiced support for Thomas, and urged the planning commission to approve his request, as well as Rob Alway, who supported Thomas on behalf of the Michigan Farm Bureau.
Though Winczek stated during the meeting that support from the community doesn’t inform the way the planning commission enforces ordinances, Thomas said he was appreciative of the encouragement.
“It’s pretty cool when you see the community band together,” he said.
He also thanked planning commissioners for their diligence.
“We’re grateful that the commissioners were attentive and it was obvious to me that they did their due diligence this time around,” he said. “I’m very, very relieved and ecstatic.”
When Thomas first approached the commission in March, he had hoped to have an outdoor beer garden with additional parking for up to 25 people and pints served on site by Memorial Day weekend. Now, he said, he’s ready for a break before moving forward.
“Right now, this has been all-consuming. We’re going to take a week off and not think about it at all right now,” Thomas said. “We’re going to take a deep breath and get the business realigned.”