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Driggs P&Z recommends approval of conditional use permit for vodka micro-distillery in the impact area north of town.

Grand Teton Vodka Micro-Distillery Conditional Use Permit Hearings

What happened? 

On Wednesday, October 12th, 2011, the Driggs Planning & Zoning Commission held a public hearing to consider a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) application submitted by Bill and Lea Beckett for a vodka distillery located at 1755N and Highway 33, immediately due west of the Burns Concrete batch plant north of Driggs. This property is located in the Driggs Impact Area, meaning that this CUP will first be reviewed by Driggs, and then go to the Board of County Commissioners for final approval.

This particular property is located on the northern end of the impact area, 1.75 miles north of downtown Driggs.  There is some access to the Driggs municipal water system, but the city sewer line does not currently reach this property. It is zoned C3 (service & highway commercial) where uses like a "micro-brewery" or a "bottling and packaging plant" are only allowed via the conditional use permit process.  In 2008, a contractor motel was proposed onsite, but the market slowdown and approval of the Burns Concrete batch plant right in their view corridor to the east derailed the motel plans.

What did P&Z decide to do? 

One of the big issues for P&Z was determining exactly what uses would be permitted through this CUP. By definition in the Driggs' zoning code, a "micro-brewery" would allow for food and retail sales – which the commission did not think was appropriate for this area outside of the city limits. The Becketts stated that they have no plans for food sales, but did hope to be able to conduct bus tours, tastings, and merchandise sales if possible. Without a liquor retail license, they could not sell their vodka onsite. In the end, P&Z voted unanimously to grant this CUP, but limit the permit to a "bottling and packaging plant" so there would be no potential food or merchandise sales outside of the city limits.

Retail…..or no retail? That is the question. 

After the final vote, several interesting things happened. The Becketts informed P&Z that the owner of the Driggs liquor store had recently approached them about partnering with them to move the liquor store onsite with the distillery so there could then be retail sales. This would greatly improve their sales and potential for success. This proposal was not met with any enthusiasm by P&Z as the entire deliberation had focused on the fact that retail and food sales were simply not appropriate in this location outside of the city limits. P&Z emphasized the long history of Driggs struggling to keep retail in town. Driggs has recently invested a lot of time and money into its commercial core, where tourism oriented businesses have the benefit of drop-in customer traffic, and broader zoning for things like food and merchandise sales.

This tug-of-war for retail sales illustrates a common struggle where commercial land uses are often proposed out in the impact area where land is cheaper. Although properties may be cheaper out there, location can make or break a business. To overcome the challenges posed by location, local governments are often pressured to allow for expanded commercial uses in these areas. However, these expanded uses tend to still be in the wrong location and continue to struggle. This devalues the surrounding area, creating a domino effect which leads to more sprawl.

Just as the retail / no retail debate was reaching a crescendo, the chairman of the Driggs Urban Renewal Commission (URC), Hyrum Johnson, stepped up to the podium and extended an invitation for the Becketts to meet with URC and explore potential sites for moving this business into the Driggs Urban Renewal District where URC can offer financial incentives such as improving the street frontage for the business. Johnson opined that this micro-distillery was precisely the type of home-spun business that URC was looking to bring into downtown. If located within the URC, additional uses such as merchandise sales and liquor sales in partnership with the liquor store would be allowed uses. 

What happens next?

Time will tell what happens next, but perhaps this will be the start of a creative partnership with URC to bring this distillery into town where retail is permitted.  If the plans for the micro-distillery continue forward on the current piece of property, then procedurally, the next step for this CUP is to go to final hearing before the Board of County Commissioners. This is because the property is located in Driggs impact area, a sort of joint jurisdictional buffer around the city. The Driggs' zone code applies to all lands in the impact area, but the county still has final enforcement authority over all land uses.

We will keep you posted when the next hearing is scheduled.

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