CHINA — After spending six months fixing up the barn attached to his home on Neck Road, Parris Varney got to admire the work at his daughter’s wedding in June 2016. Around 150 people attended the event, and many suggested Parris and his wife, Cathy, start hosting barn weddings as a business, the couple said.

“We kind of figured it was going to go easy,” Parris said. “Who wouldn’t like barn weddings in China, Maine?”

The couple want to host affordable weddings for mostly locals, they said, but their idea might not pan out.

The proposal to start a barn wedding business on the rural road — rejected recently by town planners after neighbors raised quality-of-life concerns — has prompted a group of residents to start a legal battle over the Varneys’ application and to circulate a petition asking the town to enact site review standards. The Board of Selectmen has rejected the petition, though, leaving the group members feeling frustrated and silenced.

The Varneys’ case has sparked a much broader question in China: Does the town need site plan review standards to help regulate further what people can and can’t do on their property?

The barn wedding issue is not the only thing that prompted residents to start a petition seeking to halt commercial conditional use permits, said Sheri Wilkens, who lives across the street from the Varneys on Neck Road and is one of the petitioners.

“I think that might have been initially what got people out and listening,” she said, “and out of that it just became apparent that there’s a lot of lack of follow-through on hard work that citizens have already done.”

This section of a renovated barn would accommodate a bar inside a proposed event center by owners Parris and Cathy Varney at their home in China. Staff photo by David Leaming

The petition asks the selectmen to impose a six-month moratorium on new or pending commercial conditional use permit reviews so the town could revive a Comprehensive Plan committee to establish land use districts.

“When we talk about ‘land use districts,’ it includes incorporating site review standards such as traffic, parking, sewage disposal and neighborhood protections including noise, outdoor lighting, sewage disposal and other external impacts. It’s a comprehensive term,” said Marie Michaud, a Neck Road resident and the main petitioner who gathered signatures and presented them to the town, in an email.

Land use districts would set up protections for different types of neighborhoods, such as village or historical areas, and establish preferred areas for commercial development.

The petition started in November 2016 and had 375 signatures, Town Clerk Becky Hapgood said. A petition would need 209 signatures to go to the selectmen for action.

The implementation committee created a draft ordinance in 2011 that revised the land development code, Wilkens said, but that draft never went anywhere.

Now the Planning Board relies on its criteria in its conditional use permit review, in which board members must make subjective judgments about things such as noise or glare without any specific standards to evaluate.

At times, the Planning Board still discusses its criteria and how they need to be updated. The board has discussed possible changes to the 15 criteria used for conditional use permits since at least February 2016.

Residents have started to notice such things and want a change, said Wilkens, whose husband, James Wilkens, is chairman of the Planning Board.

“There’s this paper trail of people identifying this as an issue, and people stating they need to work on it, and then somewhere it’s falling short,” she said.

She rejects the idea, though, that the effort is all to stop a the creation of a wedding venue, and said the selectmen have “deflected” the petitioners’ questioning.

APPEAL PENDING

Meanwhile, the Varneys are waiting for the appeals battle to go to court.

The couple had submitted an application to the Planning Board in the fall to turn the barn at 701 Neck Road into a wedding venue. It has two working bathrooms, a grassy field for parking and a small built-in bar. The couple also had Jayson Murray, technical manager at the Waterville Opera House, do a sound test. In his report, he concludes that “it is doubtful that the venue will produce any obstructive or distracting noise levels” as long as the loud noises, such as music, stay inside the barn.

They also told the Planning Board they would hold events only in the summer on Fridays through Sundays, for a total of 96 hours per year.

But some neighbors are opposed to the idea of having a commercial venue in the area. At a public hearing on Oct. 11, concerned neighbors talked about the potential for noise, traffic hazards and runoff from using a field as a parking lot, as well as who would enforce the rules if people became drunk or rowdy, according to the meeting minutes.

The Varneys, though, point out that there are already businesses and event venues on Neck Road. The China Lake Conference Center is on the road, and they said a neighbor down the street is licensed to host tent weddings. The Varneys themselves are licensed with the town to use their home as a bed-and-breakfast, though they haven’t done so in a few years.

Speaking inside their home in China, Cathy and Parris Varney said they hope to open an event center in a barn on their property on Neck Road. Staff photo by David Leaming

“I don’t think there’s ever been a complaint on Neck Road,” Parris Varney said. “I think a lot of the items they brought up were grossly exaggerated.”

The Planning Board still denied the permit — board members conceded it was the first time a conditional use permit in town had been denied in years — saying the application did not meet a criterion involving whether the proposed use of the property will have a “significant detrimental effect” on the enjoyment of abutting property as a result of noise, odor, glare or other reasons.

Board members said their decision on that “detrimental effect” question was based on what they heard from neighbors at board meetings.

The Varneys then appealed the Planning Board’s decision. The appeals board said the decision had a “lack of proper findings of fact” and remanded the case back to the Planning Board.

Now a group of residents has filed an appeal of the appeals board’s decision in Kennebec County Superior Court, calling its decision “arbitrary or capricious.” The Planning Board has postponed its decision on the permit, and it might take eight months for the appeal to work itself out in court.

The Varneys said they already have spent a few thousand dollars in legal fees.

USING THE LAND

The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Feb. 6 to reject the petition supported by Wilkens and Michaud because of the wording, Chairman Neil Farrington said.

Under the petition’s wording, the selectmen are asked to impose a moratorium, which it is not authorized to do. The board could put forth a warrant article at a town meeting, asking voters to impose a moratorium; but the petition does not ask the board to hold a meeting, nor does it provide language for a warrant article.

The board did send the petition language to the Maine Municipal Association, an organization that provides services and advice to municipalities. The association repeated the same issues — that the petition was not asking for a town meeting, but was asking the selectmen to do something that they legally can’t.

The association said the board could reject the petition and advise the petitioners to circulate a new one with different language, or it could draft a warrant article itself and work with the petitioners to capture their ideas.

However, some members of the Board of Selectmen don’t agree with the idea of putting a halt on permits for businesses, and some also say that the town already has made it clear it doesn’t want districting or zoning of any kind in China.

Since Farrington’s been a selectman — 13 cumulative years — the board has approached the idea of zoning three or four times, but “nobody wants it,” he said.

Cathy and Parris Varney walk on Thursday outside the large barn on their property in China. They hope to turn the barn into an event center. Staff photo by David Leaming

“Everybody wants to use their land,” he said. “It kind of turns into a ‘you can do that, but not in my neighborhood’ thing. We’re not big city folks, where we feel zoning is a must-have.”

Farrington also said he thinks many of the petitioners are involved in the court appeal because of the wedding venue issue, and the action seems to be coming from a “particular area of town, not the town itself.”

Selectman Ronald Breton also said he thought it would be hard to do any kind of zoning in a town like China, and that the town never seemed to want that.

“The community as a whole over the past few years has said they don’t want to do zoning in China,” he said.

Wilkens and Michaud emphasize that the proposal was not to institute zoning, but rather the more comprehensive site plan review.

According to a handbook on the topic by the Maine State Planning Office, site plan review is a “locally developed system for reviewing new commercial, industrial and other nonresidential development to assure that it meets public health, safety and environmental concerns. It is not zoning.” Site plan review is comparable to subdivision review, it says.

PETITIONER RESPONSE

Marie Michaud said in an email she thinks the petition’s intention was clear.

“The selectmen seem to have taken a literal interpretation to the petition rather than recognize the symbolic meaning of the petition,” she said. “Avoiding the issue won’t make our concerns go away.”

Michaud went about the state’s direct initiative process as she was told, she said, and got more than the required number of signatures. However, things didn’t unfold the way she was told they would, she said. In her email, she said she and other residents followed the rules to be proactive and form a petition, and that the selectmen “circumvented” their efforts.

“Certainly with the large number of people who signed the petition, the Selectmen could have considered it a mandate to honor their request,” she said. “(Thursday) was the first time we were notified that the wording was going to allow them to disregard the petition. That is 3 months after they had the signed petition!”

Michaud also said that the Town Office helped craft the petition. But Hapgood, the town clerk, said they would never do that.

“The Town Office does not write the language for petitions. We provide them a packet, explain what is needed for signatures, for circulation of the petition, but we have not, nor will we ever write the language,” Hapgood said. “I specifically suggested to her that they get it looked at by a lawyer.”

The petitioners had hoped their issue would be placed alongside an article about whether to enact a moratorium on recreational marijuana establishments at a special town meeting in January, Michaud said.

“We just wanted to give people a chance to vote on some type of development guide or growth plan for our town,” she said. “Let’s be clear. We are not asking to create zoning, but to provide the Planning Board with measurable standards to base their decisions for future growth in our town. Without measurable standards, the Planning Board recognizes they have no authority to protect our town from growth that is not in accordance to how we want to see our town develop.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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