READFIELD — Bob Bittar has invited a lot of people over to his place Saturday to hear Chiharu Naruse play the piano.

That might be a problem for Readfield town officials, but it might not.

They are taking a wait-and-see approach in this latest step in a long-running dispute between Bittar and town officials over his plans for the property he owns at 216 Mill Stream Road.

While Bittar has said publicly he intends the property to be a performance center or club, it’s not that yet. It is, on paper, a single-family home with a large barn, a lot of tables and chairs and a stage.

A week ago, Bittar had planned to hold a “free concert barn housewarming” party at which musicians were booked to perform.

However, he canceled it when he received notice from the town that he might face legal action if he hosted the events he planned for Aug 18 and this Saturday. Instead, he shifted the first event to the Readfield Emporium, a restaurant Bittar owns in Readfield.

The second one is scheduled to take place the barn.

Standing in front of his timber-framed barn on Mill Stream Road on Friday, Bittar said people showed up last week at the barn anyway.

“There were 50 or 60 people here,” he said.

Despite the renewed notice of concern by town officials this week, Bittar said he plans to host Saturday’s event — the performance by Naruse, a noted concert soloist — as a memorial celebration for his late wife, Helen, who died in April. He prefers to call it a concert.

In a post on the Emporium’s Facebook page on Friday, Bittar wrote: “To be absolutely clear, on August 25 WE WILL HAVE A CLASSICAL MUSIC CONCERT at our house — 26 Mill Stream Road. AND I want all my friends and neighbors and their children to attend… There will be no commercial activity. There will be no payment of money to me. I will take no money.”

That apparent link to the Emporium is one of the red flags that town officials have noted as they try to balance their responsibilities with Bittar’s property rights.

Robert Bittar stands on Friday outside the barn on his property on Mill Stream Road in Readfield. While town officials have warned he could face legal action for holding a concert today on the property, where zoning rules allow only single-family homes, he maintains that inviting friends and relatives over to hear music is not illegal. Staff photo by Jessica Lowell

On Friday, Readfield Town Manager Eric Dyer said town officials have a history with Bittar that goes back at least five years on Mill Stream Road.

In a time line that Dyer drafted, the first entry is a stop work order dated Dec. 3, 2013, issued because Bittar was making structural changes to the building, a former textile mill, that exceeded normal repair and maintenance.

The time line also notes that Bittar signed a consent agreement in July 2017 agreeing that the building would be used only as a single-family dwelling, with any change of use to be reviewed and permitted by the Readfield Planning Board.

“Right now, the property is zoned as a residential zone and the building is classified as a single-family home. It’s not being operated as a single-family home,” Dyer said.

Holding massive concerts advertised as a business through an extension of a business is not in keeping with a residential zone, he said.

“When you look at a residential zone, it has certain characteristics. This has few of those characteristics,” Dyer said.

Like zoning in many other Maine towns, Readfield’s is spelled out in its Land Use Ordinance.

Bittar’s property is in the rural residential district, which “accommodates low density residential use, agriculture and forestry operations which are compatible with the preservation of Readfield’s rural character, and which are protective of sensitive natural resources and scenic/visual quality.”

“The idea of having an event center in a rural residential zone is not consistent with zoning,” Dyer said.

In Readfield’s rural residential district, restaurants, bars, and civic and convention centers are not allowed, but clubs and community centers are. They require site plan review from the Planning Board as well as a permit from the code enforcement officer and local plumbing inspector.

Bittar’s goal to use the building as a nonprofit community center or club was stymied in June when the Planning Board rejected his application to change the use of his property from a single-family home to a community center or club.

Now he’s pursuing changing the zoning to rural, which is less restrictive.

“Now I have residence here,” he said, “and a residence can have house events and parties and things. There’s no limitations on size or hours or anything. It’s just a home event — legal,” he said. “Now they are saying you are subverting the law. You need a special permit.”

The town’s Aug. 16 notice to Bittar noted he had not applied for or been granted a mass gathering permit for his events.

Under the town’s ordinance governing mass gatherings, permits are one of the requirements for events drawing more than 500 people.

“You have explicitly stated that over 1500 people have expressed interest in the concert, and that you (have received) ‘many, many inquiries about attendance,'” the notice states. “Clearly, this anticipates a potential crowd of more than 500 people, so the permit is required.”

Bittar argues that there’s a difference between expressing interest in an event and attending one.

It’s not clear the building could accommodate that many people. Bittar said the state fire marshal’s office has not rated the capacity of the space, because there will be no dancing.

Dyer said despite Bittar’s assertion that he’s not charging for the event, there are other factors that undermine the characterization of Saturday’s 7 p.m. concert as a house party.

“The fact that it’s a fully operational commercial building, with all the accoutrements of a full-scale event center, it’s hard to look at it with a straight face and say it’s a single-family home,” he said. “It has a commercial kitchen.”

It also, Dyer said, does not have a sprinkler system.

And because Bittar publicized the event through the Emporium’s Facebook page, that suggests an extension of a commercial use.

Even so, the town will not stop the event.

“In the first warning, we said, ‘Bob, in good faith, don’t hold these events. They are not permitted,” Dyer said. “We’re not trying to predetermine what the outcome will be, but we have to decide whether he is in violation of the Land Use Ordinance, and what he does Saturday will inform our decision.”

Dyer said Gary Quintal, Readfield’s code enforcement officer, has been asked to keep an eye on things.

“We do have a process to go forward,” Dyer said. “I think it’s unfortunate that we’re not allowed to do that without conflict. We do have a Planning Board meeting and a Select Board meeting coming up. We do have a community that appreciates process.”

Bittar said he wants the town to see his building, to understand what the town rejects.

In his Facebook post, he said:

“I will continue my use of 26 Mill Stream Road as a festive Single Family Dwelling. That use includes invitations to guests to attend social gatherings, parties and listen to music at my home. I invite friends and neighbors to play music whenever they request, in any of the rooms of the house or in the barn. This activity is, I believe, consistent with the rights of a Readfield and American home owner.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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