Community not sold on hemp-product plant
Pueblo grower withdrawals request for oil extraction following neighborhood outcry
The large, white building at 1225 Aeroplaza Drive is an unassuming place. It sits atop a low grassy knoll with a parking lot to the south, and is separated by a berm from the Boys and Girls Club of the Pikes Peak Region headquarters.
Shade trees cast dappled patterns across the lawn and bicycle-friendly street. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is directly to the south and west, and Pestemon Park is fewer than 1,000 feet away, almost within the building’s line of sight.
West of the church and park is a residential neighborhood comprising generally well-kept properties with old-growth trees, fences and carefully maintained lawns and gardens. It’s an idyllic slice of mid-century suburbia, really — the sort of peaceful neighborhood where one resident has happily made his home for more than four decades.But a new neighbor that wants to grow its business in the cavernous warehouse fronting Aeroplaza has the community up in arms. An overflow crowd piled into a 1225 Aeroplaza meeting room on Sept. 9 to hear how Veritas Farms executives plan to retrofit the mostly vacant 61,617-square-foot building into a CBD manufacturing and shipping plant.
Veritas wants to send extracted, tested and processed Cannabinoid, or CBD, oil from its Pueblo farm to the Aeroplaza facility to be turned into a slew of personal-care items that include tinctures, salves, capsules, lotions and even an upcoming line of pet products. But before it can do that, it needs the blessing of the City Planning Commission, which means it will undergo a public hearing.
The Sept. 9 meeting, a precursor to the official public-engagement process, was intended to let neighbors learn about work already in place (the company runs a small packaging and shipping operation from the site) and share their opinions on the expansion proposal.
“I believe this never would have happened in the Northern part of the city,” 42-year neighborhood resident Paul Long said, to murmurs of approval from the crowd.
Veritas Farms Vice President of Operations Rianna Meyer told the large and largely skeptical gathering that her company wants to be good neighbors and employers.
“We are coming into your community and we want to be a part of your community,” she said. “We’re not here to create problems.”
“Everybody’s talking about, ‘We need new jobs, new opportunities.’ Manufacturing’s a good job … and Southeast needs jobs.” — Southeast resident Jacqueline Armendariz
The company’s vision
Veritas filed its initial application with the city in May. At the time, the company requested a conditional use permit to bring raw materials into the Aeroplaza building and cold ethanol to extract the CBD oil. But leaders dropped that plan following a community outcry that included more than a dozen letters and emails of opposition from residents and neighborhood organizations.
Opponents worried about the health and environmental risks associated with ethanol extraction, and raised red flags over the impact such a practice could have on property values. Those arguments were reiterated on Sept. 9, as well as some distaste with the idea of manufacturing a product derived from a cousin of marijuana.
CBD oil is extracted from industrial hemp, Meyer said, and while it is true that both hemp and marijuana are forms of cannabis, the former contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychotropic chemical in the latter that makes you high.
“We are coming into your community and we want to be a part of your community. We’re not here to create problems.” — Rianna Meyer, Veritas Farms vice president of operations
Limited recreational and medicinal uses of marijuana are, of course, legal in Colorado; however, the plant and its byproducts remain federally prohibited. Hemp and CBD, on the other hand, were legalized on a national level in 2018 as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. That legislation threw responsibility for and the enforcement of industrial hemp to the states.
“Our plants are designed to be high in CBD and low in THC,” Meyer told the crowd. “We are regulated by the (Colorado) Department of Agriculture. They come in and test us and make sure we are below 0.3 percent THC. If we are over that they can come in and take our entire crop.”
If the company has its way, it will bring the extracted oil to Colorado Springs, where as many as 35 employees would turn it into the many products Veritas now sells to national pharmaceutical companies and supermarket chains, Chief Operating Officer Dave Smith said. Neither Smith nor Meyer would provide a salary range for would-be employees, but Meyer said both salary and hourly wages are competitive with the going rates for manufacturing labor in the community. The company also provides benefits to its employees, Smith said.
Finished Veritas products contain natural ingredients like fractionated coconut oil, beeswax and essential oils.
“We’re changing something that we thought we were doing,” he told the crowd. “There were lots of concerns [about the ethanol process] so we took that off to make you all feel better. There won’t be any chemicals on this site.”
Still, many members of the crowd remained unconvinced. Residents questioned the hours of operation and number of shifts the plant would run; the impact the project would have on air quality and property values; and the security of the facility, among other woes.
They worried that granting Veritas the go-ahead would be akin to giving it permission to back into the ethanol extraction process down the road. And one man pushed back on the location of the spot, asking why the company didn’t opt to set up shop in the shuttered King Soopers supermarket at Mission Trace Shopping Center.
For their part, Colorado Springs Principal Planner Morgan Hester told the crowd that before Veritas could begin manufacturing the products at all, it will have to start from scratch with the complicated permitting process. As it stands, the project won’t be greenlighted without a revised application, public hearing and Planning Commission approval.
Smith said Veritas planned on withdrawing its original application and submitting a revised one that does not involve extraction “as soon as we can.”
“I believe this never would have happened in the Northern part of the city.” — Paul Long, 42-year resident of Southeast Colorado Springs
Laura and Dave Nelson own property in the Colonial Park neighborhood, near the Veritas project. They were among those who worried about the impact the plant would have on quality of life in the neighborhood and how noxious odors from the facility could affect air quality. After the meeting, however, they had a bit of a change of heart.
Laura Nelson was reassured by the fact that, if they feel the company is out of compliance with its permits, all it would take to get it checked out is a phone call and a compliant.
“You need to play by the rules,” she said. “They [the City and Pikes Peak Regional Building Department] will inspect you.”
Veritas’ call to dump the extraction request, she said, was both a diplomatic solution and “a lot of goodwill to the community.”
Southeast resident Jacqueline Armendariz was among the few who welcomed the proposal with open arms. She is the second vice chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party and a former City Council legislative aide, but she emphasized that she was attending the meeting as a resident, not in a political role.
Armendariz sees the manufacturing facility as a way to bring well-paying jobs to a part of the community that is often overlooked by external investors.
“It’s very important,” Armendariz said. “I don’t think we want to take a road of misinformation, when hemp has the possibility to be in our backyard.
“Everybody’s talking about, ‘We need new jobs, new opportunities.’ Manufacturing’s a good job … and Southeast needs jobs.”
Since Veritas Farms agreed to withdraw its request to perform ethanol-assisted oil extraction in Southeast Colorado Springs, it will rewrite and resubmit a proposal to manufacture CBD oil-infused, personal-care items. There was no timeline in place as of Sept. 9 for that to happen; however, Veritas leaders were hopeful it would be done quickly.