A proposed farm brewery off Earlysville Road is sparking protest from nearby residents and area environmental groups.
Champion Brewing Company before Thanksgiving made public plans to convert a longtime church near the South Fork Rivanna River Reservoir into a summer camp-themed tasting room and farm brewery. The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control license application for the site is pending. Champion is hoping to open the location in April.
Hunter Smith, president and head brewer of the Charlottesville-based brewing company, said his mother grew up in Earlysville, and that he hopes to build something for the residents in that community.
“There’s not a ton of stuff between [Albemarle] High School and the airport,” Smith said. “We thought it would be a cool location … We wanted to come in and put something cool and thoughtful there for the community.”
Smith said he plans to use pawpaws, persimmons and other fruits and herbs grown on-site at 2001 Earlysville Road to brew small batches of brew — up to 31 gallons at a time — and build a small food truck to serve finger foods. Smith said he wants to partner with local nonprofits and share some of the proceeds with them.
In the weeks since the plans were announced, residents in the Earlysville Road area have organized against the project, signing a petition and reaching out to elected officials. The board of directors for the Ivy Creek Foundation and the Piedmont Environmental Council have written letters against the idea, citing concerns about negative effects on the reservoir and wildlife in the area.
“This planned brewery and event space will likely have dangerous and destructive impacts upon the human visitors and wildlife whom we are charged to protect,” the Ivy Creek Foundation board wrote in a letter to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.
County officials will hold a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Agnor-Hurt Elementary to answer questions and to explain the zoning process.
The property is zoned Rural Areas, in which farm breweries — along with specific operational, agritourism and beer sales-related uses — are permitted by-right, meaning no county legislative approval is needed. Private events and amplified outdoor music are not allowed, Smith said.
Farm breweries are regulated at the state and local level. Smith said Champion has applied to the Virginia ABC for a license to operate the business and brew beer at the location. Meanwhile, a zoning clearance application for a farm brewery and tasting room on the site was voided because there were “no events proposed thus no clearance needed,” according to the county’s website.
Smith said Champion is renting the property, which was home to a church for decades.
Monticello Wesleyan Church has since merged with Cornerstone Community Church and moved to a new location in 2015.
If the 3.2-acre property receives state permits, its farm brewery activities would be limited to only what is granted by-right, and would not be eligible for what the county defines as “farm brewery events,” or weddings, which require a minimum of five acres of agricultural products planted on-site to be used in beverage production, among other requirements.
“Some of the things that I think folks are concerned about we’re not actually able to do,” Smith said. “… So I think some of the idea of a raucous party scene not only is not what we are trying to do, but it’s not even what we’re allowed to do. We want a cool family-friendly outdoor experience.”
The organizations and neighbors are particularly concerned about traffic on Earlysville Road, the character of the neighborhood, well water supply and the water quality of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.
Andrea Terry, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority’s watershed manager, said that at this time, the authority is not making any statements regarding whether the brewery is good or bad for the reservoir, but said they are pleased that it’s moving through the county process on regulations.
“We’re paying attention, but at this point, we don’t see anything that stands out that makes us go, ‘This is going to be a huge issue,’” she said.
A few groups have reached out to the authority, which Terry said prompted the RWSA to get more information on the project. She said the authority learned that the Virginia Department of Health will review the current septic system on the property.
“That’s the one thing we would want to know — is that their septic system can handle whatever waste is coming from that,” she said.
Smith said the company takes the used grain off-site, so there isn’t a risk of runoff. What will end up in the septic system will be “a little bit of beer-y water,” he said.
“The idea of putting a large brewery on a septic system in Earlysville does not make a lot of sense,” Smith said. “That’s why we got it where we’ve got it. This is more about using the ingredients that are on the farm. Creating cool one-offs that last a week tops, and keep it new and exciting.”
On Wednesday, Ralph Morini, who lives near the site, gave the Board of Supervisors the petition with in-person and online signatures and comments.
More than 200 people signed the petition. Most of those who commented on the online petition were opposed.
“It’s a quiet residential area,” Morini said. “Historically, there’s been a lot of fight against putting commercial properties into the residential area. We know it’s going to be very upsetting to the nature of the area, and potentially the property values.”
Samantha Young, though, supports the idea.
“To be honest, this is a great thing for Earlysville,” she wrote. “How ungrounded would I have to be to not want a beautiful outdoor space that my kids and my husband and I will equally enjoy without driving 45 minutes? … I for one am super excited about this and I’ll be a big supporter. Let’s get excited about more serious issues people instead of a bucolic waterfront brewery.”
Smith said he thinks the fear of the unknown is creating confusion about the business.
“If not everybody knows Champion, they may not realize that we have a large brewing facility elsewhere and that this is not about that,” he said.
Champion opened seven years ago, and this is the second new Champion location announced this year for the Charlottesville area. The company recently opened a restaurant in the Shops at Stonefield. Earlier this year, they closed a Richmond location.
Smith said he was surprised by the pushback for the taproom but added that he has heard from supportive residents.
“Generally speaking, people are excited to have new amenities in the neighborhood,” he said. “Breweries, historically, tend to raise property values. Some of the concerns are not consistent with what we usually see, but we‘re always happy to be an open book, and we want to be a good neighbor.”