Brunswick Planning Board shuts down farm weddings
BRUNSWICK — When Ian Talmage and Jennifer Banis bought their mid-1800s farm on Round Hill Lane four years ago, their dream was to restore it and make it a destination for couples looking for a rural, farm-to-table wedding.
That dream ended Tuesday night with the Planning Board's unanimous denial of their request for a special permit at Casco Farmhouse.
Talmage and Banis told the board they had always wanted to "live and raise a family in the beautiful, historic, farmland area of Brunswick," according to their permit application. "Hosting weddings will help us reach this goal ... (and support) the adjacent farms and the local agriculture."
They said they planned to source much of the wedding fare from Crystal Spring Farm and farmer's market, and that Banis, who is a wedding caterer at 111 Maine, already does business with Crystal Spring.
They also said the 20 weddings a year they planned to host would provide business for local hotels, inns, and restaurants.
But their neighbors had a different vision.
"(Talmage and Banis) are marketing their property as quiet, serene, beautiful Maine countryside home, then are themselves leaving and the neighbors are then stuck with the noise of their groups," Michael Samson, of Casco Road, said in an email to Town Planner Jeremy Doxsee.
In another email to planning staff, Pem Schaeffer, of Crestview Lane, said "(the) proposed use will significantly alter the tranquility, safety, and quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods, and is an entirely inappropriate use for a residential property in a rural and agricultural setting."
Town staff identified parking and noise as the elements most incompatible with surrounding properties.
To mitigate the parking issue, Talmage and Banis secured letters from four local hotels saying that guest's cars could remain parked there while they were shuttled to the wedding site. Ten parking spots would be allowed on the property for caterers, handicapped guests, and wedding couples.
But Talmage and Banis could not prove that weddings would not violate the noise guidelines of the town code.
At Tuesday's meeting, Director of Planning and Development Anna Breinich said that in the Rural Coastal Protection zoning area, noise could not exceed 50 decibels during the day and 40 decibels at night.
The applicants conducted their own study of the property on the evening of May 26, using a decibel meter application on a smartphone and a hired wedding DJ. They said they found no measurable increase in the ambient noise level when the music was playing inside or outside of their barn.
Staff had suggested the couple hire a sound engineer to do a more official study, but the applicants cited the estimated cost - between $7,000 and $10,000 - as prohibitive.
Anecdotally, neighbors said they already knew how much noise weddings would generate because two events were held last year.
Robert Elder, of Casco Road, said "I, like everybody else, heard the noise last summer and it was nowhere near 40 decibels."
Samson said "there were a lot of people with a lot of noise," and that he was kept awake "listening to drunk people yell across the property."
Several neighbors spoke of hearing singing, yelling, and vomiting up until one in the morning.
In all, seven people spoke to the board in opposition to the permit.
Banis later called last summer's events "a huge mistake."
In the end, the board followed the staff's recommendation and neighbor's testimony and unanimously denied the special permit application.
Board member Soxna Dice told the applicants that even though she liked the farm-to-table wedding idea, "the concern is just that (the limits on noise) would be unenforceable."
Board member Richard Visser agreed. "It's nice to have the entrepreneurial-type attitude ... but there are limits," he said.
After the meeting, Banis said she was "disappointed" and did not know what the next step would be.
"We put so much love and blood and sweat and tears" into restoring the property and preparing the application, she said.
She also said Brunswick is being left behind in a growing industry of farm-based weddings.
Banis said the idea sprung from her work as a wedding caterer, where she travels "up and down the coast" of Maine.
"There are lots of towns profiting from this industry that's gone through the roof, so we were really hoping since we have the experience in the industry that we would be able to spearhead that in Brunswick," she said.
According to Banis, the only barn wedding venue in Brunswick is the Cram Alumni House at Bowdoin College.
The nearest farm venues are Mallett Barn on Wolfe's Neck, in Freeport, and Livewell Farm in Harpswell, she said.
And in Cape Elizabeth, the Planning Board is drafting a special events ordinance to allow rentals of residential property for private functions on parcels larger than 15 acres.
The process left Banis less than pleased.
"There was a lot of unprofessional-ism in the handling of (the application)," she said. "The decision was pretty much made before we got there."
At one meeting with staff, she said, one town administrator accidentally passed her a note intended for another town employee that said "(Banis) is not qualified to run this business."
"I'm still suffering from the disappointment," Banis said. "Other towns definitely see the benefit."