STARKS — A Starks man said that a local referendum on tomorrow’s ballot unfairly targets his step-father’s “creative cannabis community,” over-regulates local events and places a financial burden on organizations attempting to bring tourism to the Somerset County town, accusations that Planning Board Chairwoman Gwen Hilton has firmly denied.

The cannabis community, Harry Brown’s Farm, has operated for nearly 30 years in the Somerset County town of about 630 people. The farm runs three annual festivals: Harry’s Hoe Down, Green Love Renaissance and Harvest Ball, which feature music, art and “cannabis liberation” activism. At the business’ peak, the events attracted 10,000 people each, but have since waned, according to a recent article in Down East magazine.

Harry Brown in a redecorated former school bus May 31, 2017, on his farm in Starks. Casey O’Connor, the stepson of Harry Brown, claims that updates to a mass gathering ordinance that Starks voters are being asked to approve Tuesday are an attempt by town officials to hurt Harry Brown’s Farm. Town officials deny the charge and point out that it governs everyone. Portland Press Herald file photo by Ben McCanna

Casey O’Connor, the stepson of Harry Brown, stated that updates to a mass gathering ordinance that Starks voters are being asked to approve Tuesday is an “unethical and illegal” attempt by town officials to hurt Harry Brown’s Farm. The town’s planning board had proposed the revisions based on an uptick in complaints about a lack of enforcement at large events and a resident survey that showed support for the move, according to Hilton. They apply to events involving 250 or more people, a change from the current ordinance that governs events of 750 people or more who attend an event for six hours. If voters approve the changes, Hilton said, Harry Brown’s Farm, which has not been required to obtain permits for events in at least the last decade, would likely need to start applying for permits.

“I attempted to work with the Planning Board over the past year to develop a Mass Gathering Ordinance that would balance the legitimate interests of all stakeholders,” O’Connor wrote in an email to the Morning Sentinel on Sunday. “Selectman Ernest Hilton and his wife, Chair of the Planning Board, Gwen Hilton along with Selectman Paul Frederic and Town Planning Board Members Kenneth Lust and (Joe Hartigan) have made it clear, through public statement, in recorded Planning Board, Selectmen, and Public Hearings that the purpose of this Mass Gathering Ordinance is to target a specific business, Harry Brown’s Farm.”

Gwen Hilton said that neither she nor other members of the planning board want to put the farm out of business and that the officials worked with O’Connor when drafting the language of the new ordinance to make the permitting process more user-friendly.

“It is not targeting them,” Hilton said. “It’s not intended to prohibit what they are doing there at all. … There’s a long history, obviously. And the complaints that we’ve had, I believe, had to do with (their events), but any time you write an ordinance you don’t write for one activity or one business. It’s to be applied equally for all activities.”

O’Connor did not respond to a request for follow-up comments for this story.

The new mass gathering ordinance would decrease the permit application fee to $100, plus the cost of notifying abutters and the public — a fee that may be waived for nonprofits on a case by case basis. It would also require any organization hosting an event with 250 or more people to pay for one law enforcement official to oversee offsite security, if the planning board deems it necessary. The number of required security personnel was initially higher, Hilton said, until O’Connor’s feedback during the policy drafting process helped convince the planning board to lower it.

O’Connor expressed concern in his letter that lowering the attendance requirement for the mass gathering ordinance “would mean weddings, benefits, charity events, graduations, & most other events that are regulated under this ordinance.” He also alleged that events such as the “Fermentation Fest,” thrown by the farm Hilton owns, Hyl-Tun Farms, would be unfairly “given waivers for the many theoretical requirements in order to gain a permit.” Hilton adamantly denied that accusation.

“The Fermentation Fest has not attracted 50 people — if that,” she remarked. “It doesn’t even begin to compare. It’s just silly to compare that.”

The policy does not apply to town-sponsored events, local public school sporting events or functions or meetings held by county, state or federal agencies, the document states.

Consistent with the existing policy, those hosting large events will remain responsible for funding liability insurance and submitting a deposit to the town to cover off-site impacts, according to Hilton.

O’Connor said that the calculations for the deposit are unclear and “provide (a) pretense for discriminating against businesses determined to be ‘a pall on the town’ with overburdensome and unknown costs.” He also expressed concern that the costs of printing the necessary materials for a permit application are prohibitively high, “in the range of $750-1,500.”

Hilton replied to the Morning Sentinel that the deposit is not specifically defined because it is difficult to predict before knowing the details of an event and that printing fees should not reach such high figures.

“I think that’s an exaggeration,” Hilton said. “We require eight copies of the application form, which is eight pages, I’m guessing, and then a map. Towns do this all over the state of Maine.”

She added that applications and maps of the venues can likely be re-used for multiple years as long as the event logistics outlined on those materials do not change.

Regardless of the differences between town officials and Harry Brown’s Farm, results of Tuesday’s election will determine the path forward.

“We have some healing to do in this community, and however it happens, whether the ordinance passes or doesn’t, it’s gonna continue on,” Hilton said.

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