AUGUSTA — A downtown restaurant that has been in the works for many months is one step closer to opening after an application to upgrade its exhaust system received a green light under the city’s recently passed historic district ordinance.

But that upgrade, and the circumstances that have led to it, have proved frustrating for the owners of Otto’s on the River.

As part of the $15,000 upgrade, an exhaust duct will be installed on the back side of the Water Street property, which will be visible to anyone looking at the brick building from Front Street, according to Wyatt Shorey, a co-owner of Otto’s on the River. The duct will leave the restaurant’s kitchen and carry exhaust up to the roof area, past the apartments on the upper floors of the downtown building.

On Friday afternoon, a group of seven citizens who sit on the city’s recently created Historic District Review Board asked Betsy Poulin, deputy city planner, a few questions about the project.

She showed them drawings and photos of similar exhaust systems, and after about 15 minutes of discussion, the board unanimously approved the upgrade.

It was the fifth project to come before the board. The group also has approved signs for several businesses, including Otto’s on the River, Cushnoc Brewing, the wine bar Circa 1885, and the law firm Ellis & Meader.

The new approval process was created as part of city ordinance that was passed last spring and that authorized the creation of several local historic districts on the city’s west side. The new districts were drawn by a historic preservation consultant and passed by City Council later this year.

Shorey is planning to have the new exhaust system installed on the property, 287 Water St., this weekend. For more than a year, Shorey has been developing Otto’s on the River in the space formerly occupied by Gagliano’s Italian Bistro, where Front and Winthrop streets meet Water Street.

He and his partner in the project, Steven Dumas, also own and operate Aunt Gin’s on Route 17 in Whitefield.

After Friday’s approval of the upgrade, they still need to receive an occupancy certificate from the city, as well as health, fire safety, food and liquor licenses from the state.

Shorey wasn’t planning originally to seek approval from the Historic District Review Board for his exhaust system, but that changed last month when one of the city’s code enforcement officers, Robert Overton, informed him that he would need to upgrade the system so that it reached the roof of the building.

Shorey expressed frustration that although they met with Overton in May, he did not communicate the need for those upgrades until October.

And Shorey said that he already had paid about $1,000 for the ventilation system inside the kitchen, when Overton told him he would need a more substantial upgrade. The uncertainty about the project has given Shorey second thoughts about the restaurant, into which he and Dumas have invested $150,000, he said.

“We’re ready to pack up and leave, we’re so disgusted with the city of Augusta,” he said.

But in an interview, Overton and Matt Nazar, the city’s director of development services, disagreed with that characterization.

Overton said that he first informed Shorey back in 2016 that the exhaust system would need be upgraded. And during their meeting last May, Overton wasn’t able to tell Shorey that the system was inadequate because the kitchen was still a long way from complete and he couldn’t know what they planned to install.

“I had no way of knowing that what they were going to put in there was not going to be code-compliant,” he said.

Also, Nazar said, officials sometimes make assumptions that professional contractors who are doing work on commercial projects such as Otto’s on the River understand the city’s building codes.

Given the confusion in this case, Nazar said that he and other officials might consider whether to establish a separate permitting process that makes it clearer what types of upgrades are needed in commercial developments.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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