When organizers of a large music festival in Norridgewock submitted their application for the event to the town, they were surprised to learn that on-site alcohol consumption is banned.

The festival’s plan to include a beer garden, something organizers pointed out was standard at events like theirs, would have to be canceled.

“People pay for a high-end concert experience, and it’s kind of become the norm to be able to go into a beer garden close to the stage and have an isolated area where you can see the performance and have a beer,” said Chris Cote, executive producer of the Great North Music and Arts Festival.

Town officials in Norridgewock say most people know about the town’s blue laws, but some out-of-towners and business owners, such as the festival organizers, say they are surprising and outdated.

Norridgewock isn’t the only town in Maine where liquor laws that were put in place decades ago have caused modern-day confusion.

In Cambridge, town officials plan to take another look at the liquor laws after finding out that a local ordinance allows wine to be sold only on Sunday.

In Somerset County, 11 communities prohibit on-site alcohol consumption, including in restaurants and bars. Almost every town varies in its rules and exceptions about what can be sold in stores and when, and there is even one community — Lexington Township — that is completely dry.

Officials in some of the towns say updating the laws would help business, but they have persisted the way they are for decades for many reasons — unpaid public officials’ lack of time, confusion because the law differs in almost every town, and the culture in small communities where either no one has asked to change the law or no need is apparent.

WINE ON SUNDAYS

In the town of Cambridge, Town Clerk Carol LaPlant said that since 1974, the town’s liquor laws allowed only beer to be sold during week, and not hard liquor or wine. The town doesn’t allow agency liquor stores, and there is just one store in the community of 450 people — the Cambridge General Store.

In 2013, the town voted to make the sale of both beer and wine legal on Sundays, but they didn’t update the during-the-week rules to include wine.

Patti Dowse, who owns the Cambridge General Store, said she wasn’t aware of restrictions in the law, but after the Morning Sentinel called to ask about the exception, listed in state records, she called a state liquor inspector, who confirmed that wine may be sold only on Sundays.

“We have a sign up now that says, ‘Sorry, only on Sunday,'” Dowse said.

Dowse runs the store now, but she has rented it to various people over the last three years. She she wasn’t sure whether those store operators encountered confusion over the law while getting their liquor licenses.

“I don’t know whether the first set of people just never noticed they weren’t supposed to (sell certain beverages during the week). And who comes to check? I don’t know if anyone comes to check,” she said. She said the state must have missed the exception when issuing the store its license.

The state does routine checks of liquor sales, but because of limited staffing, it doesn’t get to every place every year, said Larry Sanborn, liquor enforcement division manager for the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations.

He said confusion over the laws often arises from exceptions such as the one in Cambridge.

Another recent example is the town of Houlton, where three grocers were told last month that they could sell hard liquor but not beer or wine on Sundays.

Dowse said Cambridge simply doesn’t have the manpower to check on things such as liquor law oddities.

“This is a town of 450 people,” she said. “The selectmen are paid almost nothing and they do a lot of work. It’s not something they do for a living, so they’re not going to be as informed as somebody who’s a paid professional, a town manager that that’s all they do, so it’s very easy for things to get by them because they don’t have the time to investigate.

“We’ve had some ordinances passed here that, when you actually look at them, they make no sense at all.”

The only way to change the laws is through a special town meeting. That point was brought up in Norridgewock, but officials there told the festival organizers that they had too little time to do anything about getting approval for a beer garden for this year. A special town meeting requires 45 days advance notice by law.

The festival organizers say they’ll be out about $20,000 they already invested in the beer garden, rental equipment and a higher insurance policy that would have been required for on-premises consumption.

TOUGH ON BUSINESS

For others, the outdated laws also can mean a loss of business.

In Cambridge, Dowse said the state is not taking any action against the store for selling wine during the week, since their state liquor license also does not list the exclusion, even though the law does.

“We don’t sell a lot of wine, but what we do sell a lot of is Twisted Tea, and that also falls under the same exclusion,” she said. “Hopefully people are understanding. They’ll just have to come buy it on Sundays.”

Many towns in Somerset County have just one or two restaurants, or none at all, and the question of changing the law has not come up. Many of the laws date to the 1930s, when the end of Prohibition prompted the state to put referendum questions before communities to determine local liquor laws.

Lexington Township, the only dry community in Somerset County, is part of an unorganized territory and has a population of 330.

Around the state there are also a number of communities in Aroostook County, Washington County and other predominantly rural areas that remain dry, according to Sanborn.

“It’s likely that in a majority of these cases, there are no human life forms residing in these areas,” he said. “Nobody lives there, so there’s been no need to address those problems.”

There are no dry communities in York County and one in Kennebec County — Vienna, which has a population of 570.

Like Norridgewock, Hartland also prohibits on-site consumption.

Town Clerk Judy Turner said that in her 13 years working at the Town Office, there has only been one request to serve alcohol.

“That was just for a special event, and it’s not anything we do,” she said. “It’s something the townspeople did not want.”

The variations in the laws do complicate regulation for state and local officials, Sanborn said, but he doesn’t necessarily recommend that towns take a second look at their laws. The laws are one example of communities making their own decisions in a state known for strong local control.

“Some of these laws go back as far as 1933, when it was written into (state) law to give every community the opportunity to have a voice,” Sanborn said. For those who are unhappy with the laws or want to change them, there is a process in place, he said.

In Anson, a special town meeting was held last year to change the town’s liquor laws to allow on-site consumption. The change was proposed when the Diadema Golf Club was built.

Selectman Chairman Arnold Luce said it was a good economic move. “I think when a business wants to serve alcohol, it’s going to help their business. That means they’ll become a good taxpayer in town, and we haven’t heard of any problems,” he said.

Still, he said he thinks updating the liquor laws is a decision that should be made on the local level.

For now, at least two towns in Somerset County will be taking a second look at their liquor laws in the coming months.

“We’re going to find out what people want,” said Dowse, the store owner in Cambridge. In order to take the issue to a special town meeting, she will have to organize a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election. In addition to selling wine on days other than Sunday, Dowse said she’d like to start a petition to allow beer to be sold for on-site consumption.

In Norridgewock, Cote also said he plans to make sure the issue is put to a town vote in the coming year. Without the ability to serve alcohol, he said, he isn’t sure the festival would be able to grow and attract as many people as they hope to draw in the future.

“If someone wants to have a cash bar at their wedding, they can’t,” he said. “It’s something that really needs to be looked at again, because there are ways to amend the law where it wouldn’t necessarily mean a bar can come into town, but for special events like weddings or festivals, it wouldn’t be so hard.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.