By Gail Callahan
The Charlotte Selectboard’s meeting this week was fraught with emotion as Mt. Philo Hops owner Peter Briggs and manager Julian Post defended their planned project to neighbors, while promising to work hard and manage the project well.
The two-hour session gave residents of the neighborhood near the hops farm site along Palmer Lane and East Thompson’s Point Road an opportunity to voice concerns about water, expected pesticide use, and the impact the farm may have on scenic views. Countering that criticism were several experts invited by town officials and the farm owners – individuals from the Vermont Land Trust, a hydrogeologist, an expert on growing hops, and a state agriculture staffer whose expertise is pesticides.
Addressing the concern about pesticides affecting adjacent land, farm manager Julian Post said the project will use vegetative buffers along its borders to help prevent or mitigate impacts of pesticides on neighbors’ property. The location of hedges to be planted would be determined following discussions with neighbors, Post said.
Prior to the meeting, the Selectboard visited the hops farm site. The board decided to hold the meeting after receiving a letter signed by 29 neighbors who live near the planned hops farm. Linda Samter, is one of those neighbors. She said the letter stemmed from “our concerns regarding the Mt. Philo Hops operation and health and safety concerns of residents surrounding the Mt. Philo Hops Farm.”
Mt. Philo Hops aims to grow hops for Vermont’s booming craft-beer industry. Farm owner Peter Briggs wants to plant the first crop next growing season on 30 to 35 acres of the farm’s 58-acre parcel at the intersection of U.S. Route 7 and East Thompson’s Point Road.
Hops plants grow upward along supports comparable to telephone poles in height. Some critics of the farm say the nature of the plants will visibly alter the area and harm the open views in the notably scenic location just west of Mt. Philo. Briggs and Post say that they likely would rely on some pesticide use to manage the crop, but haven’t gone into details about those plans.
Jeff Martin, who lives on Palmer Lane, addressed the meeting’s standing-room only crowd of about 40 people and the farm representatives. “(Selectboard chair) Lane Morrison said that Peter Briggs wants to be a good neighbor,” Martin said, pointing out neighbors’ homes are their biggest investment. “I want to trust you, (but) I don’t feel we’ve gotten off to a good start. We live here, and it’s not about not supporting farming,” he said. “I believe in integrity and honesty.”
Stephen Kiernan, who has lived in town for 25 years, addressed those gathered at the meeting and criticized the unruly behavior of a few. Kiernan said he asked Briggs about the number of phone calls he has received from concerned neighbors and said Briggs told him he hadn’t logged any. “Some people haven’t behaved in a neighborly way,” Kiernan said.
In an email exchange following the meeting, Briggs said that he appreciates the feedback from those who spoke during the public meeting.
“We tried to listen carefully and with open minds to our neighbors’ concerns at the town meeting last night,” he wrote in an email to The Citizen. “In particular, we really took to heart their expressed emotion and sensitivity surrounding the very complex subjects of pesticide use and pesticide drift. It was great that some of the State’s top experts on both hop farming and pesticides could contribute to the discussion so we could all have a shared fact base.”
Despite the conversation, some residents left unsatisfied that their concerns were heard.
Following the meeting, resident Jorden Blucher emailed The Citizen a statement from neighbors regarding the course the meeting took: “The Selectboard meeting last night was supposed to be for neighbors to request of the Selectboard to engage the Town Attorney to determine if Mt. Philo Hops plans are in conformance with the Town Plan,” he wrote. “Somehow the meeting changed from this intended request to a session where Mt. Philo Hops’ chosen experts could refute our issues and concerns. However, none of their experts refuted the research that with a 50-foot buffer pesticide drift would occur onto neighbor properties.”
Post, who said he’s open and willing to speak with neighbors about specifics aspects of the project, said there are no plans to step away from the project. “My biggest mistake was not knocking on every person’s door,” Post said. “I look forward to having a personal relationship with all of you.”
Post also agreed with Briggs’ comment at the meeting that “if it isn’t done correctly, then we won’t do it.” Briggs explained that he won’t spare any expense to ensure that the best planning goes into the hops farm.
Selectboard chair Morrison said the panel will take “no further action” on the project. Establishing the hops farm does not require any specific regulatory review at the local level. “We held the meeting out of courtesy for the residents and the farmers. We wanted to give everyone a chance to talk,” he said.