Belen P&Z approves zone change for planned microbrewery

........................................................................................................................................................................................

If everything goes as planned, Belen residents won't have to go far to tap the taste of fresh brewed beer.

The Belen Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved a zone-change amendment for 202 De Soto Ave., home of the Rail Cafe, that will make way for the area's first microbrewery.

Commissioners amended the property's conditional-use zone to allow the cafe's owner and P and Z Chairman Tom Greer to transform the defunct business into the Hub City Brewery.

The property's first conditional-use zoning designation allowed the Rail Cafe to serve and sell beer and wine. This new amendment allows the establishment to brew, bottle and distribute beer as the Hub City Brewery.

Greer temporarily handed the gavel over to the commission's vice chair, Gordon Reeves, as he assumed the role of agent for the brewery and presented the case for the zone change to his colleagues on the commission.

Proper zoning is an essential step for securing the remaining licenses and permits needed to get the tap flowing. Greer said without the zone change, it is unlikely that the state's alcohol regulators will grant the brewer's license.

"We are already in the process of doing the things that need to be resolved prior to alcohol and gaming completing our paperwork," he said. "We do have pending paperwork at the state alcohol and gaming and on the federal level with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms."

Both Commissioner Reeves and Rod Storey expressed concern about the operating hours of the proposed brewery.

"I am assuming you can't sell beer at all hours of the night ― you have to go by the regular laws?" Reeves questioned.

The brewery will operate under the Rail Cafe's beer and wine license, which means the brewery will have the option of selling package beer.

But Greer said it will take some time before the brewery reaches that capacity.

"It is not our intention at this point," he said. "In the beginning, we are probably going to produce the very bare, minimum amount of beer we have to produce to be a brewery."

In New Mexico, a microbrewery must follow strict guidelines to remain in good standing with the state's alcohol regulators.

The city's senior code enforcement officer, Lisa Miller, said she received a letter from a homeowner near the proposed site who supports converting the cafe into a brewery.

In addition to making sure the proposed brewery wouldn't disrupt nearby homeowners, commission members sought assurances from Greer and Miller that the proposed site was the prescribed minimum 300 feet away from the closest school and church.

"The closest school is Central Elementary and the closest church is Seventh Day Adventist, and they are all six times the minimum distance from property line to property line," Greer said emphatically.

Greer said he decided to pursue plans to convert the former eatery into a brewery because the tough economy makes it hard to compete as a restaurant.

"We did discover selling food there is a bad idea," he said. "It was good food, but competing with the dollar menu in this tough economic time made it very difficult to produce the quality we wanted."

Greer, who acknowledges he knows "everything about this except brewing beer," said it will be some time before he hires a master brewer to oversee the brewing operation.

Once the brewery is up and running, Greer said he hopes to have the entire operation manned by veterans.

"It's going to be an opportunity to outreach to them and get them started into some civilian employment when they come back from the current conflict," he said.

Once Greer and his partners obtained all necessary permits and licenses, they will begin raising money to help fund the project.