The Town of Purcellville is one step closer to turning a chunk of its 189-acre Aberdeen Property into a hops farm.
The Town Council on Tuesday night authorized a study to review the feasibility of setting aside 10 acres of the town-owned property for individual hops growers to cultivate and harvest their crop. Six hops growers have expressed interest in partnering with the town.
Town Manager David Mekarski said that while the main intent of the study would be to ensure that the town continues to have “viable, clean, reliable drinking water” because the property was purchased for that purpose, the study would include many components. Mekarski said that since conducting the study in-house would take longer to do, the town might want to hire an outside organization to handle it.
While the town could use reclaimed water from its water treatment facility to irrigate the hops, Mekarski said the town would need to determine if that water needs additional treatment before being used, although he said it was already “unbelievably clean.”
Capital Projects and Engineering Manager Dale Lehnig said the town is working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to find a way to dispense the reclaimed water—something that could cost $100,000 but also could be an additional town revenue source.
Mekarski said that if the town for any reason can’t use the reclaimed water for the hops irrigation, it would have to find another water source, possibly from one of the three wells on the property. He said this could decrease the town’s availability of drinking water, though, since the town’s wells are operating near their limits to meet demand.
Another aspect of the study will be to check with the Virginia Department of Health to determine whether any fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides used on the hops would affect the land’s aquifer. “We have to check to ensure that there wouldn’t be any kind of contamination of any kind,” Mekarski said.
The town’s legal team will also need to determine whether growing hops is a complimentary or conflicting activity in relation to the conservation easement that protects the property. An environmental impact analysis would also need to be carried out to determine if the property’s multiple wetlands are protected by state or federal regulations and if there are any endangered species living on the land.
Additionally, Mekarski said the town would need to evaluate a site plan to determine if more than 10 acres is needed for infrastructure like ancillary buildings or access roads. He said that town staff is writing out the scope of the study.
“When you’re dealing with a public asset you have to do thorough due diligence,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’re dealing with public tax dollars.”
Although Mayor Kwasi Fraser said during Tuesday’s meeting that the study was needed at this point, he made it clear that it was only an initial assessment. He said the property has been a liability since the town purchased it for more than $2.5 million nearly a decade ago.
“Nothing is etched in stone,” he said. “I don’t want that land to just sit there and we’re getting no revenue from it.”
The idea to grow hops on the Aberdeen Property initially came up early last year, when Fraser asked Dragon Hops Brewing Co-owner Emily Coryellfor a proposal detailing the initiative, as part of the current Town Council’s desire to generate revenue from town-owned property and assets.
Coryell, the founding member of the Loudoun Hops Association, has since been working to provide the town with a list of expenditures and work needed to carry the project out. She said that while the town would be responsible only for supplying the electricity and water, she would incur additional costs, such as an estimated $17,000 needed to prepare just one acre for hops growing. The town would also need to consider other expenses like labor, equipment purchases and annual hops maintenance.
Coryell said that once everything is in place, the town could make money from rent payments from the individual hops growers and a percentage of what they make on their harvest.
Mekarski said that since the property is public land, the town would need to solicit public bids from hops growers if lease agreements were to be for five years or more, according to Virginia Code. Even if lease agreements were for fewer than five years, he said it would be good public policy to get competitive bids.
Some residents raised concerns that the town is diving into anther project too quickly. Resident Beverly Chiasson said that she isn’t sure the town could break even on the investment.
“I appreciate them looking at options … but my concern is the options they are looking at are too much of an investment for a town of our size,” she said. “I’m not sure we have the background to turn that type of investment around.”