The Shed gets variance for pizza oven, testing needed for fireplace

| May 19, 2020 7:40 AM

Owners of The Shed restaurant received the county’s blessing to operate a wood-fired pizza oven, but must show its open-hearth fireplace meets air quality standards before October.

The Lincoln County Board of Health, meeting via Zoom, voted May 13 to give the popular eatery a permanent variance to run its pizza oven. But officials still want to know whether emissions from the fireplace meet local and federal standards before allowing it to operate in the future.

The restaurant ended up before the board in February after another business reported the eatery for operating the pizza oven and fireplace, which ran afoul of air quality regulations. At the time, owner Cora Gilmore pleaded ignorance, telling board members that she thought the oven and fireplace were in compliance when she bought the business.

Sympathetic board members granted Gilmore a temporary variance and offered her several months to come up with a way to mitigate emissions from the open-hearth fireplace. Speaking before the board last week, Gilmore said she had performed cursory research on the topic, but the COVID-19 pandemic had presented more pressing problems.

“… [This] was like two weeks before all of this other stuff hit and we were just in survival mode,” Gilmore said after board members requested an update on her research.

“The fireplace has been on the totem pole of priorities in keeping our business alive and our employees paid,” she said. “I apologize for that but it just hasn’t been on the priorities list.”

What research she had done suggested any potential fixes — were the emissions generated by the open-hearth fireplace to exceed standards — would be costly. A gas insert for the hearth comes with an estimated cost of between $4,000 and $12,000, she said. Refitting the chimney to remove harmful emissions also could run several thousand dollars, Gilmore told the board.

In February, Jake Mertes, county environmental health specialist, told the board that open-hearth fireplaces often were exceedingly dirty and generated little heat in return for the amount of pollution. Last week, he described the case as clear-cut.

“When they were originally building that building, they built that open-hearth fireplace, but the owners at that time were told they couldn’t use that and they were supposed to install gas,” Mertes said. “It’s been since sold to new owners, but the rules have not changed. The open-hearth fireplace is strictly prohibited by county ordinance and the county ordinance is approved by the state and the EPA.”

Gilmore has said that the open-hearth fireplace is mostly aesthetic. Restaurant employees fire it up upon request from customers, and generally only for a few hours at a time in the colder months.

Pressed by board member Sara Mertes, Gilmore reiterated that the fireplace provided little heat for the restaurant. But customers love it, she said.

“I find it’s more that the customers just like having a fire in the room,” Gilmore said. “It makes you feel warmer and cozier and you want to move toward that fireplace.”

Gilmore said she planned to have a local company clean the chimney in the weeks ahead. That should help with emissions, she said.

Asked when the fireplace might be back in use, Gilmore said the autumn at the earliest, likely October. Board members subsequently gave Gilmore until then to find a solution and allow the county to inspect emissions. Health department personnel are trained to measure the opacity of smoke visually, officials said.

In the meantime, board members granted Gilmore a permanent variance on the wood-fired pizza oven. Earlier in the year, board members Mark Peck, who also serves as a county commissioner, and George Jamison voiced concerns about potentially putting the restaurant out of business through enforcement of the regulations.

Gilmore said she was hopeful the cleaning would put the fireplace within the limits of emissions. Expensive overhauls likely were out of the question in the near future, she told the board.

“I think I would have to shut it down, just because of the financial burden,” Gilmore said. “There’s nothing left for ambiance at this time.”