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Glen Garden plan to require supermajority to pass Fort Worth council

Scott Nishimura
snishimura@bizpress.net

The controversial proposed redevelopment of the Glen Garden Country Club into a whiskey distillery and visitor attraction headed to the Fort Worth City Council for a vote Tuesday, with a “supermajority” of seven members required for approval because of the high level of opposition.

Speculation abounded on what might happen next to the historic club if the council denies a rezoning for a distillery to be built by the successful, fast-growing Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. of Fort Worth. F&R has an option to purchase the 106-acre course from its owners.

Robert Stennett, executive director of the Ben Hogan Foundation in Fort Worth, said Monday he knows of two for-profit groups that are organizing investors and expect to step forward if the zoning case goes down.

“They’re interested in preserving the history,” Stennett said in an interview. Running golf courses is “not a way to make a bunch of money.”

Golf legends Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sandra Palmer learned to play on the 100-year-old Southeast Fort Worth course. The hilly, leafy layout runs through the Rolling Hills neighborhood off of East Berry Street and Mitchell Boulevard.

Stennett said the investor groups, who he declined to identify out of confidentiality, surfaced within the last three to four weeks after the Firestone & Robertson plan emerged in May.

“Both of them recognize what the cost is to acquire golf courses, and recognize that once you make the acquisition, there are other costs,” Stennett said.

“They’re going to be at the (council) meeting, but I don’t know if they’re prepared to inform the City Council that there is an alternative,” he said.

The groups “are aware of each other” and may end up striking some kind of partnership, he said.

The investors want Firestone & Robertson, which is outgrowing its distillery on Fort Worth’s Near Southside and wants to open a second distillery at Glen Garden, to expand and grow in the city, but are driven by “the thought of bulldozing history,” Stennett said.

Besides preserving history, Stennett said Glen Garden could host a program like the successful First Tee junior golf organization.

Firestone and Robertson are seeking a rezoning to allow a distillery, related uses, and lodging, envisioning a visitor draw like Kentucky’s farm distilleries and California’s wine estates. The facility would offer tastings, tours, and special event bookings. The distillery and a visitors center would be placed around a scenic lake on the property. Firestone and Robertson say they would retain a limited number of golf holes. Retail sales of their TX Blended Whiskey would be limited to two bottles per person per month.

Homeowners have protested, saying the case has been rushed and raising questions about noise, traffic, fungus, traffic, drinking and driving, loss of history, and the morality of putting a distillery in an area dominated by conservative churches.

Seven of the nine council members will be required for approval, under state law, Jocelyn Murphy, the city’s planning manager for zoning, said. Under the law, if property owners representing at least 20 percent of the land mass within 200 feet of the property line are opposed, a “super majority” 75 percent of council members is required for approval.

On the most recent count, 25.5 percent of the affected property owners had registered opposition, Murphy said Monday afternoon.

Council member Kelly Allen Gray, who had said in June she would oppose the rezoning at council after the city’s Zoning Commission voted 4-4 with an effective recommendation of denial, said Saturday she planned to move for denial. Council members typically defer to their colleagues in votes on matters that originate from specific districts.

Mayor Betsy Price, who fielded several audience questions during a community coffee Saturday at the Sycamore Community Center in Poly, said she hadn’t decided how she’d vote.

“It’s going to sell” at some point, she told the audience. “It will ultimately be rezoned something, whether it’s apartments or a great attraction that preserves the majority of the green space.”

Opponents of the rezoning have been joined by Marty Leonard, whose father Marvin founded Colonial Country Club and Shady Oaks Country Club and was lifelong friends with Hogan and Nelson; Peggy Nelson, Nelson’s widow; and Jacqueline Hogan Towery, daughter of Hogan’s brother.

“I just want the golf course preserved,” Leonard said Monday.

Howard Rattliff, Jr., a homeowner who lives across from the golf course and has been helping to organize the neighborhood’s response to the case, said the neighborhood wants an educational institution like TCU or Texas Wesleyan University to “come in and operate the golf course for institutional benefit.”

Above all, “we want to make sure that the neighborhood is walking hand in hand with the institution that is going to buy it,” said Rattliff, who is in the information technology and database business.

C.W. Dowdy, one of Glen Garden’s owners, confirmed Saturday that he and his business partner have sent a letter to the city supporting the distillery as the best possible use for the property.

Glen Garden is profitable, but Dowdy and his partner have virtually no debt to pay down, Dowdy said.

Firestone and Robertson did not return a call seeking comment Monday. They have been running phone banks and a Facebook campaign seeking support.

They have pledged to route traffic into the site from Mitchell Boulevard, instead of through the neighborhood.

Homeowners have raised questions about whether whiskey-related fungus could spread from the property. In Kentucky, homeowners and businesses are suing decades-old distilleries over fungus.

Price told the homeowners on Saturday that experts the city staff has interviewed say the fungus problem could not occur here, because it’s too hot and too dry compared to Kentucky.

The alcohol issue is “moot,” Price said, because Glen Garden is already licensed to serve alcohol.

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