CHINA — During the time for public comment at a select board meeting Wednesday afternoon, discussion got heated when a resident of Neck Road brought up a neighborhood issue that sparked larger questions in the town over the winter.

This past fall, Cathy and Parris Varney submitted an application to the Planning Board to turn their barn at 701 Neck Road into a wedding venue, planning to hold events only in the summer on the weekends.

But some of their neighbors opposed the idea, citing concerns about the noise, inebriated guests and potential runoff from using a field as a parking lot.

The Planning Board denied the permit, saying the application didn’t meet the criterion involving whether the proposed use will have a “significant detrimental effect” on abutters. The Varneys appealed the decision — and the appeals board remanded the application back to the Planning Board, saying the decision lacked “proper findings of fact.”

Shortly after, a group of residents filed an appeal of the appeals board decision in Kennebec County Superior Court, forcing the Planning Board to postpone any further action and holding the application in limbo.

Now, residents of Neck Road are alleging that the Varneys are renting out their barn as an event space without a permit and accusing the code enforcement officer of not enforcing the law.

The Varneys refute the claim and say that the neighbors’ complaints are becoming harassment.

Town Manager Dan L’Heureux said the town received an application for an administrative appeal from the Greater Neck Road Neighborhood Association and is waiting for advice from legal counsel before acting.

The association is asking for “relief from the decision, or lack of decision, of the Code Enforcement Officer.” It alleges that an error was made in the denial of enforcement and that the denial was based on misinterpretation of the ordinance.

However, the application is created for people to appeal a denial in a permit, so the association crossed out “permit” and wrote in “enforcement,” so the town had to ask its lawyers if the document is still binding, L’Heureux said.

In an attached letter to the chairman of the appeals board, Spencer Aitel, the association says the basis for its appeal is information from the state Office of the Fire Marshal.

According to the letter, the fire marshal’s office said that a place of assembly has to meet public assembly laws for fire safety, even if the owners of the space don’t take money.

The letter ends saying that the code enforcement officer’s “decision to factor in the exchange (or non-exchange) of money is capricious and subjective and unrelated to applicable Maine public assembly laws.”

Shawn McGlew, Jeanette Smith, Marie Michaud, Karene Tripodi, Shannon Axelson and Sheri Wilkens all signed the letter as members of the association.

During public comment at the meeting Wednesday, Tom Michaud, a resident of Neck Road, said the Varneys have held three events in the past three weeks and are planning another.

“(They’ve) been denied a permit. This is a code enforcement issue. He should be writing a letter to the Varneys,” Michaud said, referring to Code Enforcement Office Paul Mitnik.

Mitnik, who was at the meeting, said there was another side to the story.

“The Varneys have told me they’re not taking money for these events. They’re having events with friends and family,” he said. “If you have to have a Planning Board permit to have a party with your friends and family, that’s a pretty sad state of affairs.”

Selectman Jeff LaVerdiere agreed, saying that while he wasn’t defending the Varneys, “it gets into the weeds … when you start trying to tell people what they can and can’t do on private property.”

Michaud also said that the Varneys have been advertising their event space on the Internet. The event space, called the Red Barn Farm, does have a Facebook page with recently uploaded photos, but there are no posts explicitly advertising the space for rent.

“I’m close to this venue. It bothers me. They are knowingly and willingly violating a situation where they were denied a permit,” said Jeanette Smith during the meeting.

Neil Farrington, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said the situation has two sides to it and that the other party should be present for the discussion. The Varneys were not at the meeting, and the issue of 701 Neck Road was not an agenda item.

“What’s the sense of having a Planning Board and all these rules we have if we can do whatever we want,” Michaud asked.

In a phone interview after the meeting, Cathy Varney said they’ve been hosting events for friends and family.

A friend of hers got married a few weeks ago, she said, and another friend had a small party.

Michaud had also said that teachers at the Vassalboro school were planning to hold a retirement party at the barn and had circulated an e-mail asking for $30.

Varney said she lives next to a Vassalboro school teacher and is not going to collect any money for allowing her to use the barn. It may be for food, she said.

Varney also said she doesn’t have to get inspected by the state fire marshal’s office for family parties. They did have the local fire department come make sure there was access to the area, she said.

“I feel like they’re just grasping at straws,” Varney said. “It’s really getting to be harassment.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour