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Fight to expand Delaware brewery comes to a head

MILTON, Del. — Dogfish Head’s beers are beloved by thousands of drinkers nationwide, but its plans to expand the business here at home in Milton aren’t winning fans.

Same Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head

Neighbors in the adjacent Cannery Village development are fighting the brewer’s request to rezone land to add to its packaging lines and build a warehouse and maintenance shop.

They say they love the company but are worried about what could happen if Dogfish Head were sold and a new owner decided to build up the newly rezoned “light industrial” 39-acre parcel.

“I hope Dogfish becomes as big as Budweiser,” said Lou Sgro, a former town council candidate. “The problem is, I don’t want it in my backyard. What makes us think that Dogfish is going to be here next year?”

The brewer says the expansion is vital to its growth, though officials did not say the company would leave Milton if the rezoning were rejected. The company employs about 110 people in Milton.

Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione said the company could build enough capacity on its current land to generate up to 2 million barrels of beer a year, compared to the roughly 145,000 barrels it brews now, he said.

But developing on the current site would concentrate the work on a small parcel within clear sight of residential areas and keep truck traffic coming, company executives said. The rezoning plan would shift trucks onto another road and shield the warehouse in the woods.

“You’re not going to see it. You’re not going to smell it. You’re not going to hear it,” said Dogfish Head’s chief operating officer, Nick Benz.

Brewery officials say many of the neighbors’ complaints stem from broken promises made by the developer of the neighborhood, who sold the land to the brewer.

“I’m wearing a giant bullet target on my back,” Benz said at a recent public hearing.

“Unfortunately, pitchforks and the quivers and the gun sights I don’t believe are intended for Dogfish,” he said.

Some Cannery Village residents contend they were promised that the land that Dogfish wants to develop would be residential, not industrial.

They also say that if the development isn’t built out as planned, their costs to maintain the community building could double. Developer Pret Dyer could not be reached for comment.

Jack Horan, a member of the homeowners’ association board, said rezoning the land would allow the brewer to do any number of things with it, not just build the warehouse and other buildings Dogfish Head plans to put there.

“Rezoning … is buying a pig in a poke,” Horan said. “Milton is the host of Dogfish. Dogfish does not control Milton.”

Dogfish Head attorney Mark F. Dunkle said the parcel that the company wants to build on has historically been used for industrial or manufacturing purposes — a hosiery plant, a button factory, the King Cole cannery. It has only recently been classified as residential, he said.

The warehouse, expected to be between 50,000 and 75,000 square feet, will sit on an area that once was a wastewater lagoon for the cannery.

“This is not radical,” Dunkle said.

During a four-hour hearing last month, Calagione rose from the audience to address some of the concerns head-on. He said the company has been approached by two big national brewers offering to buy Dogfish, and rebuffed them both.

“We told them to take a hike,” Calagione said. “We told them we want to stay a family, community brewer. … Rest assured that it’s not going to happen on our watch.”

The brewery has run out of space in its main building, and is renting about 20,000 square feet of storage space near Milford. Officials said that’s not suitable for a long-term arrangement.

Not everyone is opposed to the expansion, however. Cannery Village resident Tom Kelly said Dogfish is a good neighbor.

“They help us in town with our nonprofits and different organizations,” he said. He also pointed out that there’s no guarantee the parcel would ever have homes built on it.

Ami Rae, owner of the Vintage Cafe in town, said the brewer should be allowed to expand, arguing it has proven itself trustworthy.

“What Dogfish is doing brings everything to a whole ‘nother level for Milton, and it’s a level that Milton needed to get to a long time ago,” Rae said. “They work here, too. They probably spend more time in Milton than some people who live here.”

Still, the majority of residents speaking at the hearing opposed the request.

Said Don Mazzeo, current planning commission chairman: “It’s easier to say no today, and perhaps a modified yes later, than to say yes now and try to change it to no later.”