HOMER CITY — After more than a half-hour of public commentary, the Homer City Planning Commission approved a recommendation Tuesday to allow a proposed microdistillery to operate along Main Street in a commercial district.
The decision came after several people addressed the planning commission both supporting and opposing the request from Disobedient Spirits owners Robert Sechrist and Robert Begg to operate as a commercial entity in the borough rather than an industrial one. The planning commission voted 4-0 in favor of the plan; member Robert Toth was absent from Tuesday’s hearing.
The planning commission’s recommendation will go to borough council for a vote at next month’s regular meeting on May 7.
Each person was given two minutes Tuesday to comment in an effort to maintain order throughout the planning commission hearing, which was attended by at least 50 people.
Begg said he and Sechrist believe it is appropriate to zone a microdistillery as commercial, “as has been done in dozens of places across the country.”
“It puts us in a category with coffee-grinding shops, with bakeries, places that transform agricultural products for commercial sale on the premises,” Begg said. “We believe there’s plenty of precedent for doing it.”
He told the members of the planning commission that he understands they are facing pressure from some in the community, but none of that is relevant to the core issue, which he said is simply whether or not to make a zoning change.
One of the critics’ main points of contention is that Disobedient Spirits would be located next door to Homer City United Methodist Church, which hosts Celebrate Recovery meetings every Thursday evening.
Several people have voiced concern, saying the building is not the appropriate location for a microdistillery given what the church is trying to accomplish through Celebrate Recovery. The church also holds events for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other children’s programs, and safety concerns have been raised. Another concern that has been raised is the potential for underage drinking.
Some of those in opposition, like Georgia Morris, have said they don’t have a problem with the concept of bringing a microdistillery to the area, but they think it should be located in an industrial area.
Morris said her concern is that if a zoning change is made for Disobedient Spirits, that will open the door for other businesses down the road to attempt to do the same.
Clark Bruner, a Blairsville resident and member of Homer City United Methodist Church, presented a motion to the commission on behalf of the church council asking to not change the zoning of the building, located at 30 S. Main St., as well as three separate petitions put together by the church from congregation members, voting members within the borough and “people who are concerned for the Homer City area.”
“Our concern is, if we bend the rules or change the commercial zoning, the commercial status for … Disobedient Spirits, can we change it for a leather tannery or a paper factory?” he asked. “I know these guys are telling us there won’t be (any) smell and painting a nice picture, but if we change it for them and somebody else wants to do something that may have a bad smell, a bad odor … that they’re telling us they’re not going to have, are we willing to bend the rules for them as well? Are we willing to reclassify them as commercial?”
Jeff Smead, pastor of Harvest Anglican Church, expressed concern about the zoning and about the impact it might have on his Sunday services.
“Our service is at 7 at night on Sunday. It bothers me to be opening up another facility serving alcohol on Sunday evening,” Smead said. He said he believes there are industrial places that are potentially available “that could be used without changing the zoning (of this place).”
The Rev. Joseph Stains, pastor of Homer City United Methodist Church, said that a broad consensus of six of nine churches “have come to similar conclusions that the location adjacent to these kinds of ministries is not in the best interest of what we do.”
He called the issue a matter of trust.
“If these voices and their concerns, and if the work of Celebrate Recovery is not respected, and if this enterprise receives a blank check, no concessions about time, no concessions about space, no concessions about support or ministries or responsible drinking, and there’s no indication of any interest so far from them — if there are no concessions at all and no restrictions by this board — there will be long-term damage to trust between this borough’s representative bodies and the earnest people you seek to represent with integrity,” Stains said.
“Broken trust of that level is not easily recovered,” he added. “There are areas where there could have been grounds of discussion. We would seek those grounds. Finish this thing responsibly in the interests of all concerned. That’s our position.”
The Rev. Harold Hicks, deacon of Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship and a ministry leader for Celebrate Recovery as well as a fire protection engineer, raised a point of concern regarding the possibility of a hazard at the microdistillery. He pointed out that none of the other facilities that Sechrist and Begg compared their distillery to — a bakery, a coffee production facility — manufacture ethyl alcohol under pressure.
“In order to produce the alcohol that they’re looking to try to produce, they have to manufacture under pressure ethyl alcohol, which is a hazardous material. It’s definitely a factory/industrial occupancy,” Hicks said. “To put the manufacture of ethyl alcohol in the same class as serving whiskey and rye and beer at a bar … it’s not an equal process,” he added.
Others, however, welcomed the microdistillery downtown, expressing hope that it may help revitalize Homer City.
Elizabeth Nipps, of Homer City, said that while she is from a younger generation, she’s aware that “Homer City used to be a great place in the 1960s with a lot of businesses.”
“There shouldn’t be a problem with this facility. It’s not a bar. Distilleries go on to competitions; it’s a tourist attraction,” she said. “It’s going to be bringing in more business options for the Homer City community … they’re going to use … homegrown type of ingredients for this.”
Nipps said there are probably bigger problems in the Homer City community than someone wanting to propose their business for a distillery.
“To see somebody shut down a proposed business that could be a future to bring in other businesses to this town to help with the high tax rate that this town has, to me that’s just small-minded. You guys are not opening your minds to accept something that could be very beneficial to this community, and very positive,” she said.
Chris Cusimano, of Center Township, said he, too, fully supports the endeavor, and thanked Sechrist and Begg for choosing Homer City.
“Homer City used to be a really bumpin’ town. … Homer City is a great town to grow up in. People came and we enjoyed it all,” he said. Cusimano said that the community needs to embrace people who want to come and start a business in Homer City. He also said he appreciates what Homer City United Methodist Church does with its Celebrate Recovery effort.
“I think it’s wonderful that you do that,” he said, but added that “we don’t shut grocery stores down or restaurants down because 33 percent of the country’s obese,” or pharmacies because people are addicted to prescription drugs.
“We help those people and we move on. And that’s what we have to do. We have to keep building, moving on. … Let’s get Homer City back to its glory days. … I hope we all get behind it and get some more businesses (in the area),” he said.
Andrew Pozik, of Center Township, said he didn’t see why it would be a bad thing to have Disobedient Spirits come to Homer City.
“Any kind of business, any kind of structure … you’re going to have pros and cons. Those are things you work out,” Pozik said, adding that he’s supports business growth, where businesses build on each other.
“So I would think it would be in favor of people that have businesses here to let more in and welcome them,” he added. “Why would we want a couple of these buildings that (have been) here sitting with no opportunity for how many years now?”
Pozik said that, with the older generation in attendance, “There’s wisdom to be learned, but it also shouldn’t crowd out the voices that we have to say.”
“I’ve lived in this town here my whole life, and I would like to see it become something again because I’m part of the community. … We all, as a group, should be thankful that we have the opportunity of a business coming in here, and maybe more down the road, which is something we would hope to see.
“So why not let that in and why not, as a community, find a way to let these companies come instead of just keep shutting them out every time somebody comes in and wants to bring an opportunity into our community?” he asked.
Before voting on the measure, planning commission Chairman Sam Arone said that the zoning does not specifically depict one site, and that it is the commercial area that is being looked at. He also said changes to zoning to accommodate craft breweries and distilleries are “happening all over the country today because it is a relatively new business.”
“If anybody would look at our zoning as it is, what it states in the zoning as far as what commercial is, (it) identified every business at the time zoning went into effect,” Arone said. “It did not cover a business such as they’re proposing to do.”
Arone said the business “is equivalent to, as was stated earlier, a bakery or a tailor shop, bringing in raw materials and making a product and selling it within the same premise.”
He said as a planning commission, “our responsibility is, ‘Do we enact or change the zoning to allow new businesses in the commercial area?’”
“It is not necessarily our responsibility to look at where, but just in the commercial area, a business can be established to keep up with today’s businesses,” he said.
Arone and planning commission members Kathy Monko, Tom Plowcha and Laurie Morris said the majority of the people they spoke to around the community about the distillery supported its establishment in Homer City.
“If you look at it being that bigger planning issue, those that I spoke to were absolutely for the change in the planning,” Monko said.
“With what we heard here tonight and in our past meetings, I think that maybe Mr. Sechrist and Mr. Begg would take some of these comments to heart and if they do establish their business and get accredited (from the state) in a year or so … maybe there will be some common ground to work with,” Arone said.