There’s an old adage in the West: Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting. In the case of the proposed Emma Fields Distillery, both libations are the subject of the latter.
After about two and a half hours of discussion, including robust and extensive public comment from would-be neighbors, Pitkin County commissioners opted to punt even the first reading of the proposal for the agricultural-centric spirits distillery in the midvalley until Aug. 26.
Although the range of concerns surrounding the proposal was wide — from light and noise pollution to upticks in truck traffic relating to inventory deliveries to future implications of rezoning the currently lone unzoned parcel in the region — water rights and usage remained the undercurrent of trepidation.
To that end, the applicant — who does not own the property but has stated his interest in purchasing it, should his proposal be approved and he allowed to develop his vision — was represented by a Denver-based water engineer and an architect, as well as a water rights attorney from local legal firm Garfield and Hecht.
“There are deeds that go with this property for the Kester Ditch. In 2006, when Four Seasons went through this process, at that time, it did include use of the Kester Ditch for three to four acres. That is the continued proposal here,” Garfield and Hecht’s Mary Elizabeth Geiger said Wednesday, adding that she had not yet “done a full-blown, all-the-way-back-to-the-1800s title search that there are water rights.”
And, Denver-based engineer Alan Leak emphasized, the proposed distillery operation will only require roughly four gallons per minute from the property’s 80-foot-deep well, a fraction of the 27 gallons per minute initially pumped from the nearest well in the area.
“Looking at that information, looking at the geologic logs from the wells, it’s my professional opinion that the proposed use of the existing well as the rates proposed will not significantly impact the water wells in the vicinity of the water well itself,” he said.
Still, vocal neighbors “who waited on their phones a long time,” as commissioner Steve Child noted Wednesday evening, expressed concern about what they described as a lack of hard data regarding the actual water rights affiliated with the property and impact the usage of a spirits distillery would have on nearby wells.
“The primary ingredient in liquor is water,” one caller, who said his property is a mere 300 feet from the Emma Fields property in Holland Hills. “We also manage the Kester Ditch water; we have senior rights. What we’ve not heard is how much consumption is planned by the distillery. We’re assuming it’s a significant amount.”
According to the application for the parcel on Hoaglund Ranch Road, it, too, has senior rights from the Kester Ditch.
“Our intent is to be good neighbors — while at the same time, this property is entitled to water,” Geiger said. “Three to four acres of irrigation is not a ton.”
And it’s the quality of that water that is a main draw for the agricultural distillery project, she continued.
“We have done water quality tests on the well, both directly at the source — the well itself — as well as the spicket, and the water quality is actually quite good,” she said. “That’s one of the main reasons for the interest in this property is how great the water quality is.”
Still, it’s not just the water issues that ultimately led commissioners to delay moving forward with the proposal. When asked exactly which crops the water would be used to grow for the final product at the distillery, Luc Bamberger, of Anderson Mason Dale Architects in Denver, could not directly answer on behalf of his client.
“He’s talked about, to me, gin, whiskey, vodka. And he’s talked about — and he’s researched heavily — planting winter wheat on the site, but that hasn’t been fully vetted,” he said. “He’s also talked about potentially some botanicals being grown on the site that would go into the gin.”
That wasn’t a satisfactory answer for commissioners, who all agreed the ambiguity of the proposal undermined any would-be confidence in the proposal.
“You’re asking us to approve something that we have no idea what we’re approving. I have a problem with that,” commissioner George Newman said.
Additionally, truck traffic — especially as it would pertain to inventory delivery — became a sticking point for commissioners.
“What we want to do is create the sense of an agrarian, farm-to-bottle distillery and show kind of the life cycle of the product: how it’s grown, how it’s processed, how it’s distilled and how it’s ultimately turned into the final product,” Bamberger said. “So you can see all of that on site. I’m sure more than half of the grain will be coming from off-site.”
And while Bamberger said his client had been in conversations with other farmers in the area about partnering as vendors for that grain and other needed products, no specifics were yet available.
As such, the first reading of the proposal was continued, not for the next regular commissioners’ meeting but the next one, more than four weeks away. That was at the advice of the county’s attorney, John Ely, who cited concerns about the reasonableness of staff to thoroughly research and answer questions that arose Wednesday evening.