LINCOLN COUNTY PROCESSED: Commission tables Jack Daniel’s rezoning until February meeting

Nearly 200 citizens from both Lincoln and Moore counties packed the Lincoln County Circuit Courtroom on Tuesday to attend a public hearing about whiskey warehouse expansion in the county. (A Lynchburg Times Photo)

FAYETTEVILLE, Tenn. — It’s 5 p.m. on Tuesday and every parking spot along the historic Fayetteville Square is taken. Not by last-minute Christmas shoppers, instead, nearly 200 citizens from both Lincoln and Moore counties are packed into the Circuit Courtroom inside the Lincoln County Courthouse awaiting a County Commission meeting.

On the meeting agenda sits a rezoning request from the Jack Daniel Distillery for several acres located just off Wabash Road in Lincoln County near the Moore County line from A-1 (agricultural) to I-1 (light industrial).

Much like Moore County, all rezoning requests in Lincoln County must pass three separate readings (or votes) in addition to a public hearing, which traditionally happens prior to the second reading. That public hearing and second vote sits on the tonight’s agenda and things are a little tense.

Controversy fueled by social media

Public hearings are a little like the comments section on social media where anyone can say anything with very little push back. Tonight is no exception. Nearly 25 people spoke Tuesday night with the majority representing Lincoln County citizens opposed to the rezoning, who accused Jack Daniel’s and their parent company, Brown-Forman, of everything from knowingly causing cancer to killing trees to canine COPD.

It’s an issue that’s gained steam over the past several weeks thanks in no small part to Lincoln County resident Patrick Long. Long and his wife, Christi Shae Long, who bought the former Marshall home located at the intersection of Louse Creek Road and Lynchburg Highway in 2021 and transformed into the local events venue, the Manor at Shae Jo.

Several weeks after the first reading of the rezoning passed on November 15, Long launched a Facebook group originally named Jack Daniels Barrel House Opposition and since renamed Jack Daniel’s Barrel House Filtration that quickly gained over 600 members. {Correction: We’ve been informed by Elizabeth Graff that she, not Patrick Long, is the creator of the Facebook group. Long just comments on the group page regularly.}

At question is a dark fungus called baudoinia compniacensis that’s appeared as a nuance around distilleries, warehouses, and industrial bakeries in Tennessee, the U.S., and across the globe for centuries. Here in Moore County, you can see it on local road signs and buildings — particularly those closest to Jack Daniel warehouses. It’s caused by the natural evaporation of ethanol during the whiskey aging processes. In some circles, it’s referred to as the “angel’s share” but some, especially those required to scrape the substance from personal property, think it’s the devil.

Many of those individuals spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing and we’ve distilled (pun intended) their comments down to three key points of opposition.

Claim #1: Health effects of whiskey fungus not studied

Many who appeared in the public meeting on Tuesday laid health issues from asthma to cancer to canine COPD at the feet of Jack Daniel’s.

So is whiskey fungus a known health risk? Not according to any first-person source we could find. If you google “is whiskey fungus harmful” just about every entry states “there are no known health hazards” associated with whiskey fungus and some even suggest that it’s a sign that nature is working as it should.

It gets it’s name from a French pharmacist named Antonin Baudoin, who originally studied it on buildings near distilleries in Cognac, France in 1827. For as long as there have been distilleries, there’s been whiskey fungus. Baudoinia is thought to be millions of years old. It occurs near distilleries but also occurs naturally near fermenting fruit caused by seasonal fruit drops. It particularly likes alcohol vapor.

On average, about two percent of local whiskey evaporates each year and that evaporation floats into the atmosphere … well sort of. Ethanol is actually more dense that oxygen, so it actually sinks. When you combine it with even the smallest amount of moisture you get whiskey fungus. In general, the closer you get to a local warehouse the thicker said fungus grows.

It’s worth noting that citizens brought civil ligation against Diageo and eventually Brown-Forman and Heavenly Hill in 2011 alleging “nuisances and property damage caused by a fungus that feeds on ethanol vapor.” Nowhere in the lawsuit did anyone seek damages for health effects.

A lower court threw out the lawsuit based on the fact that the federal Clean Air Act does not allow plaintiffs to sue in state court over air quality nuisance issues.

Claim #2: Whiskey fungus reduces property values

If baudoinia reduces property values, that’s certainly not evident at the Long’s venue located at 812 Lynchburg Highway. According to the Tennessee Property Tax Assessor website, the Longs bought the property in April 2021 for $1,000,000. According to Lincoln County Commissioner Bradford’s comments on Tuesday, the Long’s offered to sell the same property to Brown-Forman in April 2022 for $3.9 million and again on November 10 — just five days before the November 15 vote on the rezoning — for a reduced price of around $2 million.

Brown-Forman declined both offers but even at the lowest recent offer that’s a 200 percent return on their investment. Interestingly, the last selling price prior to the Long’s purchase was in August 2007 for $200,000. The most recent Tennessee Property Assessor market appraisal values the home at $543,500.

Following Commissioner Bryant’s on-the-public-record comments during the meeting, Long stated that he’s had “10 or more offers” on the property in the past several weeks. According to Real Tracs, the home is currently off the market.

Another woman, Pam Butler, who spoke against the rezoning at the public meeting, also referenced decreased property values at her home located at 59 Cecil Johnson Road.

“Property values are down 20-25 percent in the area,” she stated during the public hearing. According to the Tennessee Property Tax Assessor’s website, the home was sold to Butler in 2003 for $114,000 and it’s currently appraised at $134,200. The state last appraised the mobile home in 2019.

Claim #3: Filtration on warehouses could mitigate concerns

The Facebook group and many of the residents who spoke in opposition of the rezoning offered a bit of an ultimatum to Jack Daniel’s officials: add filtration or take your business elsewhere.

Jack Daniel General Manager Melvin Keebler told the group on Tuesday that even though his company follows all local, state, and federal environmental regulations that he’s not opposed to filtration systems on warehouses if that technology existed.

“The filtration system that Mr. Long is referring to are used on E&J Gallo warehouses producing brandy. The EPA says they aren’t applicable to the Tennessee whiskey and bourbon industry,” stated Keebler. “To my knowledge that technology doesn’t exist. Jack Daniel’s complies with TDEC and EPA regulations and all our permits are currently in compliance.”

In the end, the Lincoln County Commission tabled the rezoning during the December meeting. This means an existing member must make a motion to take it off the table and place it back on the agenda in order for it to be reconsidered by the group.

“Last year, they generated around $157,000 in tax revenue in Lincoln County. That’s equivalent to the amount 157 homes generates. With the rezoning and the addition of eight more warehouse, that amount will quadruple in the next few years,” stated Commissioner Bryant. “Do I want to live beside them? Not necessarily, every industry has problems but industry has to go somewhere.”

The next Lincoln County Commission meeting will take place on Tuesday, February 21 at 6 p.m. •

{The Lynchburg Times is an independently-owned, community newspaper located in Lynchburg, Tennessee the home of The Jack Daniel Distillery. We focus on public service, non-partisan, rural journalism. We cover the Metro Moore County government, local tourism, Moore County schools, high school sports, Motlow State Community College, as well as whiskey industry news and regional and state stories that affect our readers.}