Town site-planning proves too big a hurdle for growing cider manufacturer
By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun
Citizen Cider is moving to Pine Street in Burlington after two years getting its hard cider manufacturing business off the ground on the Essex side of Fort Ethan Allen.
Co-owner Justin Heilenbach credits the denizens of the Fort — those who live there and those who work in the eclectic mix of businesses that populate the former military base straddling the Essex/Colchester town line — with encouraging the company to offer tastings, conduct open bar hours and host special music/food/cider events.
But growth on the retail and special event side of the business put Citizen Cider into non-conformance with Essex’s industrial zoning at the east end of the Fort, requiring a comprehensive site plan that was withdrawn after the town’s Community Development Department required a list site improvements.
“It really took off and all of a sudden it was a concern about ‘how many people are you having there, and where is the parking?’” Essex Zoning Administrator Sharon Kelley said.
William Parkinson owns the Citizen Cider building and several others on his property at the Fort’s east end. A member of the Essex Community Historical Society, he is the keeper of the Fort’s history museum and curator of the Fort’s historic water tower.
When he balked at requirements like adding curbs and painting to delineate a parking lot, adding a stop sign at the end of the lot, removing an unused utility pole, and seeking further approvals from the State of Vermont, Citizen Cider pulled the application and began their search for a new home.
“He doesn’t want to do any type of improvements to the property,” said Kelley; Parkinson said he would invest in general improvements but not those that would benefit one specific business.
Citizen Cider plans a January move into a former self-storage building on Pine Street, where a bar is planned to complement the cider-making operation.
“[Essex] insisted on an engineered plan that went into minute details like what brand and what size light they were going to put on their door. It got to the point they were asking to do so many things, it was beyond their ability to pay for it … It’s an indication of how business unfriendly the town can be,” Parkinson said.
“They didn’t want to leave. We didn’t want them to leave. Everyone was unhappy about the way it turned out.”
Citizen Cider’s site plan application included a 1,000-square-foot expansion and spent the summer under review with the town’s community development staff. It appeared on a Planning Commission agenda in June, but when Parkinson withdrew his support in August, the growing business was under the gun to find a new site.
“We needed to make decisions,” Heilenbach said. “We needed to know what kind of space we were going to be dealing with … On Pine Street, the owners are putting money into the building to bring us in. Some landlords are development-minded and others aren’t and that’s fine.
“Things could have gone differently here,” he continued. “The town did what they could to try to facilitate us staying here. In the end it wasn’t possible.”
Citizen Cider’s biggest fans will always be the community of Fort dwellers and workers who nurtured the retail side of the business and encouraged the company’s manufacturing growth. What started as curious passers-by poking their heads in to ask questions turned into weekly tastings and bar hours. But the site was cramped for both manufacturing and selling. An expansion into the other side of the building would have offered a dedicated retail space and launching point for the planned special events.
It also would have served as the only food- and spirit-based gathering spot in the Fort. When Citizen Cider leaves in January, that void will return to the neighborhood.
“Everyone is understanding of the fact that we made a good faith effort to stay here,” Heilenbach said of those who frequent the cider bar. “At the end of the day, they are supporters of our business and they want to see us continue to succeed.
“It’s because of them that we got into the position to expand our retail. It was never really on our mind until the Fort folks said ‘we want this.’ People here are dying for a public space, so I hope the town and the landlord can work something out.”
Parkinson said a zoning change would be welcome to allow for more flexible business uses, without the restrictions on retail space that come with the industrial zone. The buildings were built around the turn of the 20th century and aren’t compatible with todays manufacturing needs he said. They were built on risers to accommodate rail car offloading and lack high ceilings.
“We can do little start ups,” said Parkinson. “People come in and they outgrow us and go. It’s sad to not have your zoning flexible enough to allow them to grow and stay.”