Black & Brass Blog

Zoning Map

Coffee Table Chats with Black & Brass Coffee Co.

May 1, 2021 | News

Something is rotten in the state of Honesdale, and it isn’t the smell of roasted coffee.
We say this because at Black & Brass Coffee Co., we appreciate humor almost as much as we appreciate a hot cup of coffee. In all seriousness, there’s a big problem in town, and we need to talk about it. And thank you for joining the conversation—because if this is allowed to happen to us, it could also happen to your favorite restaurant, or the pottery studio you want to take classes at, or the multi-apartment building down the block that your just-starting-out neighbors are living in. We’re talking about this because we love Honesdale, and we don’t want to see this happen to anyone who calls it home.

So, what’s going on?
Black & Brass Coffee Co. received violation notices at two of its roastery locations, essentially saying that the act of roasting coffee was light manufacturing, and that light manufacturing is illegal in the commercial district unless you have been approved for a conditional use permit. Specifically, our exhaust for our roaster was being cited as air pollution.

Well, did you get a permit?
We didn’t seek a conditional use permit, because at no point did it look like one was needed. But before opening, we had to build out both spaces to be used as cafes and roasteries, and that meant a permit to check up on everything—water, gas, building changes, electricity, etc. We crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” the borough had to offer. Our name even includes the words Coffee Roastery in it. We weren’t hiding anything. If the borough thought we were doing something that wasn’t allowed in a commercial district, they would have kept us from opening our roastery in the first place. Said another way, in order for us to even open, the borough had to approve coffee roasting as a “principally permitted” use in that district. They did that, and gave us a certificate of occupancy.

It sounds like you did everything right, but why not just fill out a conditional use permit? Wouldn’t that make things official?
Because, as of right now, whether a conditional use is accepted or denied isn’t based on a measurable standard; it’s subjective. Recently, some people were allowed to refinish a long-vacant downtown apartment; others in a nearly identical situation were not. We could pay $1000 and be told, without fact-based reasoning as for why, that we can’t roast coffee in the Borough; five years after receiving permission to do just that.

Honesdale Zoning Map

That sounds ridiculous!
That’s because it is. Could having a coffee roaster or a restaurant in a commercial district be problematic to some people? Sure. Could a residence within a commercial district also create a potential problem? Absolutely. You could also find fault with a two-apartment building in a low-density district. Or a cemetery in a residential one. Or a business incubator space in an institutional zone. All of which we
currently have. The list of potential “conflicts” is endless, if conflict is what you’re looking for.

Zoning Map

The map above shows an approximation of instances, off the top of our heads, where the use of a space doesn’t match the zone that it is in. Everything in yellow is something that, if it were to be built from scratch today, would require a conditional use hearing and $1000 to even be considered. The whole purpose of zoning is to segregate uses that are thought to be incompatible, to prevent conflicts, but this map shows just how often non-conforming uses are a significant part of our neighborhoods. They typically create a more lively place to live, work, and play. Honesdale looks like a mixed use development and we think that’s part of what makes it so special.

I’m seeing a fair amount of red on this map. What’s that about?
Those are the approximate locations of restaurants and businesses that could receive light manufacturing and air pollution-based cease and desist letters, based on what we’re dealing with. These aren’t places we think are breaking any laws and are, infact, some of the many diverse places that make Honesdale more fun and interesting. But Honesdale Borough has already tried to enforce some extremely silly policies in the past. It wouldn’t be out of character for the Borough to put these businesses in the same kind of bind they’re putting us in. One small complaint could spell the end for a business that, on the whole, makes the community a better place.

Wait- are you producing air pollution? That’s not good.
We absolutely agree! However, the white stuff coming out of the pipes on our buildings isn’t smoke. It’s almost entirely water vapor—much more similar to what comes out of a freshly popped bag of microwave popcorn than the campfire you made last summer. There are small amounts of pollutants- particulate matter, CO2, and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s); but for comparison, there are 500X more VOC’s in a standard gallon of paint than in a water vapor plume from a batch of roasted coffee. We’re looking into ways to reduce even that.

Could it be dangerous?
The folks we get our coffee roasters from say that, healthwise, there isn’t anything inherently dangerous about this and that even if there was, the person doing the roasting would be much more at risk than anyone in the surrounding neighborhood. Also, coffee roasting doesn’t expel exhaust all day. The majority of the plume comes out in the last 2-3 minutes of each 15 minute roasting process and lasts in the air for only a few minutes more. Every restaurant with a commercial kitchen releases some sort of exhaust- it’s a byproduct of cooking anything at all. Yet as far as we know, no other cafes in town have received citations. We’re all for keeping the air cleaner, but the borough needs to follow its own measurable standards when handing out air pollution violation notices. That isn’t happening here. Subjective issues (for example, not liking the smell of roasted coffee) shouldn’t be able to result in fines, because they set a standard based on personal preference instead of science, and that can result in discrimination.

So, you roast a lot of coffee. That’s not considered light manufacturing?
Not according to the definition the borough uses. All of their examples have to deal with assembly of an object from parts. With coffee roasting, the sole part is the coffee bean—nothing is “added” but heat.

That sounds a little like a technicality.
It could be, but the heart of “light manufacturing” seems to be less about how many objects are combined to make a new one, and more about serving private or far-away customers instead of the regional public. In fact, the only case we could find of a business seeking a conditional use permit for light manufacturing here was one that was planning to do manufacturing and distribution only – no local service.

Black & Brass Coffee Co. sees some sales from out-of-state, but the vast majority come from within our community. That puts us more in line with the retail/service industry, like bakeries, which are a “principally permitted” use in the commercial districts in Honesdale. Light manufacturing rules are also meant to protect people from pollution. Almost every business that could be called light manufacturing in the borough doesn’t have a conditional use permit, but they also aren’t generating any more pollution than a restaurant would. Based on this attempted enforcement, the town’s restaurants, breweries, ceramic studios, and print shops could all be subject to light manufacturing conditional use permits. We can use a technicality as a shield in this baseless battle, but many other small businesses who are performing non-polluting, local-serving “light manufacturing” in commercial zones might not be so fortunate if they find a Cease and Desist notice on their door.

That sounds like a lot of potential trouble for a lot of businesses. We like this town and its quirks, even if the zoning is a little mixed up.
Zoning is a complicated issue and we’re no experts on it. It can do a lot of good. But we are seeing many opportunities where figuring things out as neighbors could create better outcomes than a notice on formal letterhead. By the way, zoning regulations aren’t set in stone, and this wouldn’t be the first time people talked about neighborhood issues at a coffee shop. When we live and work in a place that looks like a mixed-use development, we’re naturally more aware of different people and uses. And that awareness gives us a chance to show up for fellow members of our community when they’re faced with something that seems unjust.

Thank you for doing that with us, and for not letting this stand. Bullying behavior isn’t something we want to see “win” in town- people and places that give more than they take should be encouraged.
Black and Brass is a solid part of the ecosystem here in Honesdale. We have created dozens of jobs in the past five years. We’ve hosted numerous shows for local artists, meetings for book clubs, and events for musicians. Every month, thousands of people walk through our doors for a cup of coffee. But more than the coffee, we’ve created an experience that people delight in and look forward to in town. We are always happy to work with our neighbors and collaborate to make the place we’re in better for everyone. And that’s what we’ll keep doing. We’re not going to focus our energy on citations and violations that aren’t even based on the rules and regulations of town. We won’t let this be enforced and become a precedent to blackmail other businesses. We’re just going to focus on making great coffee. And we hope you’ll join us for a cup—come what may—still roasted right here in Honesdale, PA.

© 2022 Black & Brass Coffee Roasting Co.