A group of residents protest Raising Cane Farm’s proposed rum distillery being built on agricultural land. (Photo submitted by Sara Zuckerman)
Responding to complaints from protesters about the process to approve building a rum distillery on agriculture land on the West End of St. Croix, Sen. Kurt Vialet scheduled a town hall meeting for 6 p.m. on Aug. 8 at Rotary West.
Act 8569, sponsored by Vialet, was signed by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in April. The legislation removes the term “rum distillation” from prohibited activities on agricultural land in Title 29, chapter 3, section 238. However, they did not amend section 228 which forbids a distillery on agriculture land. Until March 2022, distilleries were only allowed on industrial land.
According to a petition started by Prosperity Neighborhood Frederiksted, the bill opened the door for Raising Cane Farm to obtain building permits and move ahead with plans for a rum distillery on Mahogany Road, surrounded by residential properties.
Additionally, the petitioners say the building permit was granted without public notice nor a public hearing. Building plans have not been published and there has been no environmental impact assessment, nor were neighbors notified, the petition states.
Furthermore, the petition asks that the permits be revoked and Act 8569 be repealed. As of Sunday, more than 500 have signed the petition.
According to the petition, residents also are concerned about the problems associated with a rum distillery, such as mold, noxious fumes, waste and waste byproducts.
Some neighbors have said that Raising Cane employees have been seen spraying unknown substances while wearing gas masks, filling in guts with debris and clearing land illegally.
The farm’s owner, Robert Apfel, is a New York securities and banking entrepreneur. In 2018, he purchased 200 acres of land on Mahogany Road in Estate Prosperity. According to the company’s website, the land now produces about 8,000 pounds of sugar cane per acre. He also holds a 1,000-acre cane farm in Aguada, Puerto Rico.
During a meeting a week ago at a Vialet election fundraiser, the senator told around 30 protesters he believed the bill was “good” and an economic stimulus for Frederiksted. He also said they should contact the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources with their complaints including water table issues and destruction to mangroves. More than one person said they called and their phone calls were not returned.
“This is the first I’m hearing about any environmental concerns,” Vialet told the group, adding that DPNR can issue cease and desist orders for violations.
During that meeting, Vialet said the distillery will not be similar to Cruzan Rum or Diageo, but is a micro-distillery. Around 200,000 galleons of rum will be produced per year versus seven million gallons by the full-scale factories.
Vialet told the Source that Apfel is renovating the historic buildings on the property and planning a tourist destination with tours of the rum factory and rebuilt ruins. There will be an additional 20 jobs at the location, he said. His support of the project and the new law was based on economic benefits for Frederiksted, he said. However, due to the backlash, he said he will request that Apfel “doesn’t touch anything until we have the meeting.”
“You can’t blame a senator for wanting economic development,” he said.
Sara Zuckerman, who lives near the Raising Cane Farm, is one of the residents with deep concerns about having a distillery next door in Estate Prosperity. She and the protesters who met with Vialet believe the law was passed illegally without a public hearing. Some said Vialet demonstrated “a lack of transparency” and was not performing his “due diligence” in vetting the bill.
They also complained bitterly about the lack of response from DPNR. Zuckerman and the others believe all distilleries, even micro-distilleries, should be located in industrial zones.
“I’m worried about having a factory in my backyard. While it is a micro-distillery, the factory footprint is huge and the plans even show room for growth,” she said. “Agricultural land is allowed so many exceptions, I’m worried about the spent cane-husk waste and vinasse (distillery byproduct) polluting our groundwater, soil and the run-off so close to the West End beaches.”
“I think the scale is so small, I don’t seen the impact,” Vialet said, regarding environmental impact.
Vialet told the Source that Apfel will appear at the Aug. 8 meeting with a Power Point presentation. DPNR Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol has also been invited and Vialet hopes he and others from the department appear to answer questions.
A draft amendment is in the works and will be presented to the 34th Legislature during the next session in September. Vialet said the new bill will prevent a zoning code that doesn’t lead to a large-scale distillery. He didn’t say, however, whether or not the new bill will stop the West End rum distillery.
“I thought it (the legislation) was good,” Vialet said. “I am looking for St. Croix expansion. You know we need jobs.”