The owners of a whiskey distillery won an uphill battle to expand their operations at a heated City Council meeting Tuesday night, with the owners netting a “supermajority” of votes — 7 of 9 — to receive approval of a rezoning request for the historic Glen Garden Country Club as their new location.
The council went against the wishes of Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who represents that district, who initially made a motion to deny the zoning change. Mayor Pro Tem W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman, however, immediately offered a substitute motion to approve the zoning. Gray and Councilwoman Gyna Bivens voted against the substitute motion.
The supermajority vote from council was required for approval because more than 25 percent of property owners within 200 feet of the property line registered opposition of the zoning change.
“I heard from residents in the southeast corner of the city, ‘We want more economic development. We deserve more economic development,’ ” said Councilman Dennis Shingleton, even pounding his hands on the council table for emphasis, about his two terms on council and his time on the planning commission.
“I’m telling you, you are absolutely right, you do, but you have to take it when you get it. You have to take it and exercise the trickle down effect of economic development,” said Shingleton, echoing the sentiments from most of the council about the need for more economic development in that area.
Gray then said she wants to work with the owners discussing the project as it goes forward.
“We need to hold a meeting. We need to be very involved in what is happening there,” she said.
More than 100 people attended the meeting about the issue, with conversation on the topic lasting about two hours and the opposition often interrupting speakers with sounds of dissent.
One man was even escorted out of the council chambers after standing up to protest as the Rev. B.R. Daniels Jr., who pastors the First Greater New Hope Baptist Church near located just down the street from the golf course, spoke in favor of the distillery.
Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson, the owners of Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. at 901 W. Vickery Blvd. said at the council meeting that they would preserve the history of the club, one of the many reasons area residents opposed the idea, and talked about how they would be good neighbors in the Rolling Hills neighborhood.
“We believe with all our heart that we will honor this special place and build upon its already important significance,” said Robertson, adding that they will have “essentially a museum,” since they have the option to buy the golf memorabilia as well.
About 2,100 people signed a petition against the development, which is planned for the middle of the Rolling Hills neighborhood. Nearby residents cited a variety of concerns about increased traffic, noise, smells, drinking-and-driving incidents, potential fungus from producing whiskey and the offense of having a distillery near churches and schools.
Howard Ratliff, who lives across the street from Glen Garden, and others in opposition organized committees to research and formulate arguments about their numerous concerns, hosted community meetings once a week to raise awareness and held prayer events to pray against the zoning change.
“We are asking you to respect this neighborhood. We are asking you to preserve the history … and stand with Councilwoman Gray and the Glen Crest Civic League and deny this zoning change,” said Ratliff at the meeting. He said they are “slighted” as a neighborhood that the council does not seem to be putting the wishes of the neighborhood first.
He also asked Price to recuse herself from the vote because since she has held political fundraisers at the current Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. at 901 W. Vickery Blvd. But Price did not recuse, saying she has paid the owners for each fundraiser, so it was not a conflict. That was confirmed by City Attorney Sarah J. Fullenwider.
“The zoning request itself, it flies in the face of any reasonable zoning request,” Ratliff said, referring to the staff report that states the zoning change is not consistent with the existing land use or the comprehensive plan for that area of the city.
In response to neighborhood concerns, Robertson said they will reroute traffic to get cars off neighborhood streets and spoke against fears of a whiskey fungus by citing experts who say the fungus likely won’t grow in this area, and, if it does, can be eradicated. He also said they plan to invest $15 million in the property, maintain a 200 feet setback from the perimeter and said by law they can sell a maximum of two bottles per person per month.
The issue brought both opponents and supporters from the neighborhood, nearby churches and business leaders, including a letter of support for the project from Paul Paine, president of Fort Worth South, Inc., and a letter of dissent from Robert Stennett, executive director of the Ben Hogan Foundation.
A historic golf course
Glen Garden, opened in 1912 by H.H. Cobb of the OK Cattle Co., is perhaps best known as the place where Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson once worked as caddies, but has been on the market for about two years.
Robert Stennett, executive director of the Ben Hogan Foundation, said his organization is opposed to the country club being turned into a distillery and he has heard of two investor groups that could come forward to save the course.
“They are aware of each other and there is an opportunity for them to partner together,” Stennett said, but he could not reveal the names of the groups.
Stennett said he thinks there are other areas of town where the distillery would be more appropriate.
“I’m not opposed to the distillery, I’m just opposed to bulldozing Glen Garden,” he said.
The owners say they need to expand operations from their current location and were proposing to turn the 106-acres in southeast Fort Worth into the distillery and a meeting center, with an intention to keep much of land open.