Traffic and overcrowded parking lots were the reasons that Alchemist Brewery owners cited when they closed their Waterbury cannery --front of the wildly popular beer Heady Topper -- to retail customers last week. But there were also other pressures on the brewery that involved Act 250, Vermont's landmark development control law.
The law, also called the Land Use And Development Law, requires a detailed review and permits for most development in Vermont in order to mitigate their impact on the environment.
According to Clancy DeSmet, regional coordinator for the Vermont Natural Resources Board, the brewery's Act 250 permit for its cannery property never allowed a retail operation.
"Retail was specifically prohibited in the original permit," DeSmet says. "So if they wanted to have members of the public coming there and buying things they need to amend a permit condition."
The last Act 250 permit was issued in 2006 for a previous business using that location. The permit wasn’t updated when the cannery opened and began brewing beer two years ago.
But Alchemist owner John Kimmich says he didn't know that when the cannery began operating.
"When we looked at the property and had talks with our landlord, he said, 'Well sure, I have an Act 250 permit and you're zoned for industrial and you can have retail here,'" Kimmich says. "We thought we had found the perfect situation."
Kimmich says he didn't realize the Act 250 permit needed to be updated until this summer. But with the growing popularity of the brewery, it made more sense to shut down retail.
"To make it legit, to actually have our Act 250 accommodate what we were doing at that property, it would have been a moot point," he says. "Even if we had a piece of paper that said, 'Yes, you're allowed to have retail here,' that's all fine and dandy. But guess what -- we're too busy. We can't handle the traffic."
Besides traffic, the state's Clancy DeSmet says that the amount of wastewater being discharged could also be a concern.
"It’s my understanding that their current wastewater permit ... approved [them] for 400 gallons per day of discharge," DeSmet says. "I was told that they are now discharging about 1,200 to 1,500 gallons per day.”
DeSmet says that figure came from a meeting with Alchemist owners on Nov. 4.
But Kimmich says those numbers aren't accurate. He says the Alchemist has installed a new meter that reads the wastewater output more accurately.
"We're actually averaging about 750 gallons a day," says Kimmich.
State officials say the Alchemist has not been sanctioned for violating Act 250. But Kimmich adds that he wishes communication between state and local offices had been better.
Officials in the town of Waterbury say the brewers did have all the right town permits in place for operation -- they also say the owners are aware of and are actively working to address all issues with their property.
Beer lovers should note that the Act 250 issues shouldn’t affect Heady Topper’s availability to the public.