Norfolk Planning Commission won’t back controversial military-themed brewery’s permit requests
Armed Forces Brewing Company is zero for three on getting support for the permits it needs to brew its beer in Norfolk and open its tasting room to the public.
Thursday, the city's Planning Commission voted to recommend that the City Council deny the request for permits from the controversial military-themed brewery.
Several residents and business owners told the commission the company and its leadership espouse misogynistic and anti-LGBTQ views.
“We have been challenged and dismayed to see Armed Forces Brewery coming into Norfolk and don’t feel that they are a business that will support our community or be a safe place for queer folks in Norfolk,” said Jeff Ryder, the president of the LGBTQ group Hampton Roads Pride.
City staff recommended approval in the report prepared for the planning commission, based on whether it would satisfy the city’s planning and zoning requirements.
But that report also included more than 800 citizen comments submitted before the meeting expressing concerns about Armed Forces, its leadership and the attitudes it would perpetuate.
Armed Forces Brewing Company’s move to Norfolk was first announced by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in July. Youngkin lured the military tribute brewery from its former home in Annapolis, Md., to take over the former O’Connor’s Brewery space in the Park Place neighborhood.
The brewery stands to earn more than $300,000 in tax incentives from the state.
Many in the community immediately flagged promotional materials from the company and statements from Armed Forces Brewing’s spokesman, Robert O'Neill, arguing that they showed a misogynistic and bigoted company culture out of step with the area.
“This brewery very clearly doesn’t fit in with the values of our city,” said Norfolk resident Berkley Ange. “Robert O’Neill, the brewery’s ambassador, has been pretty clear that he promotes weapons and violence and has misogynistic, racist, homophobic and transphobic views.”
O’Neill, who has garnered fame claiming to be the Navy Seal who killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011, has appeared on conservative media speaking out against the Navy’s use of a drag queen as a recruitment ambassador, insinuated that members of the LGBTQ+ community are “pedophiles” in a since-deleted tweet and was removed from a Delta flight and banned from the airline for refusing to wear a mask in 2020.
After Armed Forces Brewing initially made local headlines, O’Neill was arrested in Texas after reportedly attempting to fight a security guard and calling the guard a racial slur while drunk.
Neighbors said at a town hall meeting that they feared the business’ extreme right-wing values were a potential danger to LGBTQ+ residents.
Armed Forces CEO Alan Beal told WHRO in September that the brewery would welcome people of any kind, including LGBTQ+ patrons.
Still, two neighborhood civic leagues - Colonial Place/Riverview and Park Place - voted in the past few months to oppose the company’s permit application.
O’Neill, the spokesman, has since taken to his podcast to call the civic leagues “dumb.”
“It is an honor to operate a business in this city, and any organization who cannot show our city and communities respect does not deserve the right,” said Andrew Coplon, who lives in Colonial Place and runs a trade group called Craft Beer Professionals.
With some commissioners citing concerns about the brewery owners’ conduct, the planning commission voted Thursday not to recommend approval of the permits.
The planning commission’s recommendation will be considered by the City Council, which will have the final say on whether to issue permits to the company.
Armed Forces Brewing attorney Tim Anderson said after the planning commission meeting he thinks the City Council vote will go in the brewery's favor, saying it's a question of zoning and not politics.
But one councilwoman, Andria McClellan, has already indicated Armed Forces Brewing may have a tough time getting the permits.