Starving Artist Brewing will appeal to county planners

May 3, 2019 GMT

Starving Artist Brewing Co. has made some changes since failing to receive approval from the county to change its zoning status from a home-based business to an agribusiness microbrewery, and owner Andy Thomas is hoping for a different outcome when he meets with the Mason County Planning Commission on Tuesday.

“We’re going back to the planning commission to appeal (to) them, and we want to show that progress has been made,” Thomas said, noting that he will show commissioners that progress has been made to meet some of the zoning criteria that he fell short of before.

In March, Thomas sought permission from commissioners to rezone his Amber Township business, located at his 634 S. Stiles Road property. His plan was to have Starving Artist rezoned in a way that would allow him to expand his operation, allowing the serving of pints on the premises and include an outdoor beer garden as well as parking for up to 25 people.

The planning commission tabled the discussion, deferring to the county’s zoning board of appeals (ZBA), on the basis of Thomas’ property failing to meet certain agribusiness requirements in the code of ordinances — namely, that they reserve at least 2 acres for farming and harvesting and that they are at least 10 acres in size.

The ZBA is the only body that can authorize a landowner to “depart from the literal interpretation” of the ordinance, according to Mason County Building and Zoning Director Brady Selner, and on April 3, they did not approve Thomas’ request, based primarily on the 10-acre requirement, since Thomas’ property is only 5 acres.

Thomas has not given up, however, and he’s taken action to ensure some of those zoning requirements are met.

“Since the ZBA’s decision, we’ve tried to get a little more creative,” Thomas told the Daily News on Thursday. “We are starting a full farming operation, so we will be meeting that criteria. We are buying hop polls and hop plants, and we’re looking to be team players.”

In addition to hops — which Thomas hopes to have in the ground by the end of May — they will also be growing other ingredients for Starving Artist’s various micro-brews.

“Between harvesting mulberries and raspberries that are already on the property, installing a hops operation and starting to harvest off the many maple trees … we will meet the requirement of the 2-acre farming.”

It’s possible that might not be enough, however.

Following the April 3 ZBA meeting, Selner told the Daily News that the primary reason the board denied the request was because of the 10-acre minimum.

“His request was denied … because he needed a minimum parcel size of 10 acres,” Selner said at the time. “They determined that it did not meet that condition.”

Thomas is hopeful that the planners will see the progress he’s made and that a compromise can be reached.

“The good thing is that ultimately it’s the planning commission’s decision to issue a special land use permit,” Thomas said. “So even though the ZBA turned down our request for variances, the planning commission has that authority.

“This is the board that will issue the special land use for the brewery. There is optimism. It’s cautious optimism, but this is the board that has that authority.”

Thomas said he hopes to work in cooperation with the planning commission, and that a mutually beneficial decision can be reached, even if the 10-acre minimum requirement still prevents planners from approving the request outright.

“Our hope would be that we can request to table it again instead of denying it. I’m hoping that they’ll be willing to table it and help us come up with some kind of creative solution here,” he said, adding that he believes the acreage minimum is “arbitrary.”

Thomas is going to the meeting with the support of several members of the community, as well as the board of directors for the Momentum Business Plan Competition, which Starving Artist Brewing won in 2015, providing Thomas with funding, guidance and marketing to grow his business into what it is today.

The Momentum board issued a statement on Thursday declaring its support for Thomas, and urging the planning commission to approve his request.

“The Momentum Business Plan Competition Board of Directors pledges its full support of Starving Artist Brewing Co. as it seeks rezoning as a microbrewery agribusiness so it can expand, and it urges the Mason County Planning Commission to approve a special land use …” the board stated. “Andy Thomas … embodies exactly the type of business owner we want to attract in Mason County.

“Small businesses are the backbone of Mason County, and as a community, we should do everything we can to create a positive, business-friendly environment that encourages entrepreneurs like Andy not only to choose Mason County, but also expand as their business grows.

“That means having flexibility with our zoning regulations and land use, looking for creative solutions, and collaborating with small business owners to help them navigate a path for growth.”

The planning commission will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Mason County Airport, 5300 U.S. 10, Ludington.