Suspended Brewing Company Exits Rockville After Encountering Permitting and Zoning Issues
Co-owner says city put up roadblocks; city official says business didn't meet code requirements
Josey Schwartz building a wooden bar inside the space where he had planned with others to launch Suspended Brewing Co. in Rockville before running into zoning issues
Around this time last year, Josey Schwartz and Yasmin Karimian were hoping to open their small Rockville brewery in about a month.
Schwartz, 27, an energy consultant, and Karimian, 26, an attorney, had plans to make the brewery energy efficient, environmentally conscious and employee-owned. Establishing the business locally was important to Schwartz, who told a reporter at the time, “My mom always says ‘Home is where the heart is,’ and she’s in Montgomery County.”
The 2,300-square-foot brewery was to be built in a new warehouse on Lofstrand Lane in an industrial area off of East Gude Drive. The plan was to produce a variety of beers that could be self-distributed locally to bars and restaurants as well as sold in a tasting room at the brewery, according to Schwartz.
However, after spending about $50,000 attempting to start the business and then encountering permitting and zoning issues that required the owners to scrap a plan to have a tasting room, Schwartz said the pair is giving up plans to operate in Rockville and is now looking to open in Baltimore.
Schwartz admits part of the problem stemmed from a lack of knowledge about zoning and permitting regulations, but he also said the city made few attempts to provide assistance. Instead, he said, officials seemed to put up roadblocks that made it impossible for the pair to open the brewery.
City officials say, however, the brewery plans did not meet building and fire code requirements and the owners failed to apply for permits necessary for construction.
During interviews over the past month with Bethesda Beat, Schwartz said he attempted to address concerns city inspectors had with the brewery’s plans, but the two sides never seemed able to resolve the problems.
Suspended signed the lease for the space at 610 Lofstrand Lane on June 4, 2015. Schwartz noted the pair signed the lease after contacting a Rockville zoning employee about their plan.
In email exchanges shared with Bethesda Beat, the employee told Schwartz in March 2015 that because the proposed tasting area would be less than 10 percent of the area of the brewery, the owners could apply to have their business approved for use of the site in the industrial zone, which permits microbreweries. Since 2013, the state has also mandated that tasting rooms be permitted as accessory uses to microbreweries.
But then further demands were placed on the business, Schwartz said. The city required construction of a one-hour rated firewall to separate the brewing equipment from the tasting room. Officials also said the architectural drawings he sent indicated the tasting area was slightly larger than 10 percent of the floor area. He attempted to alter the design, but he said he was met with resistance after changing the shape of the bar from a straight line to an L-shape.
After realizing the business couldn’t afford to accommodate the city's requirements, Schwartz said he ditched the plan to brew at the warehouse and have a tasting room. Instead the owners opted for a plan to have another brewery brew its beer to reduce costs. Suspended then would store the beer at its Rockville location and sell it wholesale. However, when he attempted to apply for a wholesale permit from the state, he was denied because the city’s zoning department refused to approve this use. The state required the city to first approve that wholesaling would be allowed at the site before it could approve the wholesale permit.
The city employee said only manufacturing and warehousing of beer would be allowed at the site.
In December 2015, Schwartz sent an email to the zoning department about the financial burden he was enduring as he underwent the permitting process.
“I understand there is a certain amount of time needed to process my application, but wanted to kindly ask that you keep in mind that I’ve been carrying rent, insurance, common area maintenance charges, taxes, and utilities on my space,” Schwartz wrote. “It’s not my intention to be bothersome, but just a gentle reminder we are a very small, self-financed brewery.”
At the time, a different small brewery, Baying Hound Aleworks, was operating in the same industrial zone where Suspended was planning to open.
In February 2016, after losing thousands of dollars in rent and other costs, Suspended withdrew its application after a zoning employee said Schwartz would not be allowed to sell beer in the building. Schwartz said it wouldn’t make sense to pay a costly rent near downtown Rockville if he wouldn’t be able to use the space to pitch his beer to potential customers and other visitors.
Schwartz said the business is now close to finalizing a new lease in Baltimore.
Susan Swift, director of Rockville’s Community Planning and Development Services department, said Suspended ran into multiple issues. Swift said the business began construction work in the space without a building permit. She said the plans for the tasting room were slightly larger than 10 percent of the floor area and the building didn’t have a sprinkler system, which added the firewall requirement. She also said city regulations would have required a second exit from the building if the tasting room had space for more than 18 occupants, as well as additional parking for visitors.
“I’m fascinated this becomes a city problem because someone didn’t get the permits and then didn’t meet the code,” Swift said. “They can’t just come in and do things without permits.”
Schwartz responded to Bethesda Beat saying the building, which Maryland real estate records note was built in 2013, did have a sprinkler system.
An image provided by Schwartz showing what appears to be the sprinkler system inside the building.
When Swift was sent a picture by Bethesda Beat of the building’s sprinkler system that was taken by Schwartz, she said that Suspended’s plans still did not comply with the requirements of the fire and building codes and that she may have confused the project with a similar one in an older building in the same area.
However, she also sent Bethesda Beat an email she wrote in June that mentions the brewery’s building did not have a sprinkler system and as a result would need a more expensive firewall. Swift wrote the email after receiving inquiries about the business from Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and others, according to the text.
“My staff tells me that they offered various options to/for the firewall,” Swift wrote in the email that was sent to Sally Sternbach, the county’s director of economic development at the time, among others. “Because this building does not have fire sprinklers, the options were limited; and the applicant said they were too costly.”
Schwartz says he did not apply for a building permit because he didn’t believe he needed one while he was building furniture in the space and storing equipment, which he believed was an approved use at the time.
Suspended’s situation highlights how the city is attempting to navigate how to transition industrial zones to new uses as the local economy changes and issues with accommodating microbreweries in areas that weren’t designed to be retail centers.
Swift said the city is grappling with how to use industrial zones as manufacturing declines in the area. She said the city is hoping to attract businesses such as breweries and the City Council is looking at possibly allowing businesses to count on-street parking toward parking requirements as well as changing the building code to make it more accessible to new businesses that want to offer creative uses that aren’t manufacturing or warehousing.
“We would certainly like businesses like that,” Swift said, referring to Suspended’s plans. “But our job is to enforce the laws and we have to enforce them equally.”
Schwartz, for his part, is not bitter about what happened. He says the knowledge he gained from dealing with the city was akin to earning a degree in business. He now hopes he can save his concept in Baltimore.
“I’m a better brewer now,” Schwartz said. “I’m not dead. We’re not dead. It just seemed very clear to me that a brewery was not something that the local authorities were interested in having. It’s how it went. Now we’re moving on.”
Architectural drawing above provided by Suspended Brewing Co.