NORRIDGEWOCK — Organizers of a large music festival scheduled for Labor Day weekend thought their plans to have a beer garden this year were all set after the permit was approved.

But in what one town official called a communication breakdown, they found out this week that the state blue laws make that impossible, meaning they and the Waterville restaurant that was going to run the beer garden will lose thousands of dollars.

The Great North Music and Arts Festival is scheduled to take place in Norridgewock on Labor Day weekend and Chris Cote, executive producer of the festival, said Friday that $10,000 to $15,000 has been invested in beer garden preparations.

The beer garden was approved as part of a permit for the festival that was submitted to the town, Cote said.

However, its legality was questioned at a recent Planning Board meeting, and Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said Friday it won’t be possible to make legal provisions that would allow sale of alcohol at the festival, which begins Sept. 3.

Cote and Luke Duplessis, owner of Mainely Brews, which was going to run the concession, asked selectmen Wednesday if there was a way to get around the law, but they were told it’s not likely.

“I felt bad for Chris the other night, and the gentleman from Mainely Brews, if they’ve invested a lot of money in this, but I don’t know where the communication broke down,” Flewelling said. “I don’t know at what level someone said that all of this is going to be OK. It is unfortunate, but there is nothing we can do about it.”

Norridgewock adheres to state blue laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol at the same spot. The town voted decades ago in a statewide referendum to keep the Prohibition-era laws, and the only way to make an exception would be by holding a special town meeting asking residents to consider a new law, Flewelling said.

Cote said festival organizers were told initially the beer garden permit was approved, and they contracted with Mainely Brews to supply the beer.

Duplessis, of Mainely Brews, said at Wednesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting that he already has invested $5,000 in the event. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

Last year the festival got a BYOB permit — bring your own beer — from the state, and it had not advertised the beer garden for this year, Cote said. He said Friday that the festival plans to go ahead with BYOB.

As of Friday, 1,400 tickets had been sold for the festival, which last year drew about 3,800 people to Last Breath Farm on Red Barn Road. Cote said the event won’t be able to recoup the money already spent on the beer garden.

“There’s a whole different tier of insurance for mass gatherings and such when you have alcohol served on site, and that’s something we already had to secure, as well as all the (equipment) rentals,” Cote said. “That’s something we’re going to have to find another way to utilize or, unfortunately, eat the cost. That’s why I’ve been so gung-ho about getting some sort of special amendment made.”

Tim Rogers, owner of Last Breath Farm on Red Barn Road, where the music festival is taking place, said that a beer garden makes it easier to control the drinking.

The farm has hosted many music festivals, and town officials say it was the impetus for the mass gathering ordinance passed in 2006 that has spurred the permit process in which Great North is entangled.

“I don’t really care if we serve alcohol,” Rogers said Friday, but added, “People are going to drink, and it comes down to how are you going to do it. Are you going to let people bring in glass bottles and drink as much as they want, or are you going to serve them? It’s a much more controlled environment that way.”

NO BUYING AND DRINKING

In Norridgewock the retail sale of beer, wine and spirits is allowed, but consuming them where they are bought is not. The only exception to the rule is that some restaurants in town can sell liquor and wine, but not beer, Flewelling said. It also would be illegal for someone to have a wedding with a cash bar in their backyard or at another space in town.

Cote said he wasn’t aware of the law and believes that many town officials weren’t either when he submitted an application to the town to hold the event under the mass gathering ordinance. He said the application was approved by the code enforcement officer.

However, the Planning Board questioned that permit when he submitted new paperwork that was to be filed with the state in order to hold the event.

Cote then asked selectmen Wednesday whether it was possible to amend or change the ordinance to allow the beer garden, and he was told that wasn’t possible.

“We did get the application signed off on, but it wasn’t something the town has the power to sign off on, so really it turns out it’s null and void,” he said.

Both Flewelling and Planning Board Chairman Scott Campbell said Friday that only a BYOB permit was sought in the initial application.

“The original application did not include the beer garden. They added that after the fact,” Campbell said. He said he was not sure when the festival organizers added the beer garden to the event application.

A copy of the festival application was not available Friday at the Town Office.

While Campbell said on Friday the beer garden is “up in the air,” Flewelling said Friday that she had discussed the issue with the Maine Department of the Secretary of State and that there is no way the town could grant a liquor license to the festival in time for its Sept. 3 start date.

Changing the law would require residents to sign a petition to bring the issue to a special town meeting, which would need to be advertised publicly 45 days in advance, Flewelling said.

The Planning Board is scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday to discuss the mass gathering permit for the festival. In Norridgewock, a mass gathering permit is required by town ordinance for any gathering of more than 1,000 people.

The ordinance, which outlines safety procedures and makes requirements for parking, traffic flow and number of bathrooms on site, among other things, was passed in 2006 in response to earlier music festivals hosted at Last Breath Farm.

‘HINDERING COMMERCE’

Cote said he will keep pushing to change the law, and both he and Rogers said the alcohol restrictions in town hurt business.

“At this point it’s hindering a lane of commerce we need to be successful,” Cote told selectmen Wednesday.

A spokesperson for the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday asking how many towns in Maine still honor blue laws.

“At events that ours is on, the tier of (beer gardens) are kind of the norm. I can guarantee some attendees are going to be kind of put off by the fact that we don’t have one,” he said.

Rogers said that in order for a music festival such as Great North to continue to grow, it eventually will become necessary to get sponsorships from beer and liquor companies, or even local restaurants such as Mainely Brews that are willing to invest in the event.

“To do the bigger shows, you need help to make it work,” he said. “These things are not cheap. The production is very expensive.”

Rogers said he thinks the town never has adopted a liquor license policy because nobody has ever asked. He said he tried to get a license years ago, but he lost the desire when he ran into opposition.

He ended up moving a festival he was planning to Skowhegan as a result, and he lost money.

Flewelling said people have asked about having bars in town, but no proposal to revise the town’s liquor laws has been submitted to a town meeting in any recent years.

She noted that over the last three years, Great North has brought an economic benefit to local stores. The festival also gave the town $4,200 in May that was used for a fireworks display at a recent fly-in at the municipal airport.

If an exception isn’t possible this year, changing the town’s liquor laws is something that Cote said he definitely plans to pursue in preparation for next year’s festival, which he plans to continue holding in Norridgewock.

“It is something I think we can work with the town on,” he said. “With the current law, you couldn’t hold a wedding in the town with a cash bar. I think it is, without a doubt, time to address it.”

“I’m definitely upset about it, but I’m 13 days out. I don’t really have time to be upset,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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