Portland councilors reject music license for Old Port bar

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PORTLAND — Less than 50 feet on Wharf Street determined the future of the Bonfire Country Bar at the April 5 City Council meeting.

By an 8-1 vote, councilors denied a request by Bonfire owner Tanner Herget to transfer an existing entertainment license to the bar from the closed 51 Wharf Restaurant & Ultra Lounge, which closed last fall.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau was the only councilor to support transferring the license to allow live music and after-hours entertainment at Bonfire.

The license transfer was opposed by city staff on the basis of a 2006 zoning “dispersal” regulation that prohibits establishments within 100 feet of each other from having entertainment licenses inside the downtown Entertainment Overlay Zone.

The two entrances to the Bonfire are 35 feet and 48 feet from the entrance to Oasis, which is diagonally across the street at 42 Wharf St.

Anne Torregrossa, associate city corporation counsel, also noted in a March 6 memo that while Herget owned the closed 51 Wharf, he did so under a separate corporate entity, which also prevents the transfer of the license.

Herget’s attorney, Joe Goodman, said the license transfer would not add “any stress to the area,” but Councilor Jill Duson said the council approved the 2006 ordinance change in an effort to reduce crowds at closing time.

“If there was anyone I’d want to grant a waiver to, it would be this applicant. He has been a strong part of the Wharf Street economy,” Duson said. “However, what this applicant wants to do is exactly what the council was trying to avoid when it passed the dispersal ordinance.”

The ordinance change did allow existing establishments with entertainment licenses to continue in business no matter what distance they were from each other, and licenses can be transferred at the same location when ownership changes. The latter fact also gave councilors pause, since an entertainment license could be granted to any new business opening at 51 Wharf St.

Councilor Justin Costa sympathized with Herget in that councilors might have approved a shift of licenses in the opposite direction, from 37 Wharf St. to 51 Wharf St., and suggested the regulations could be worthy of review by the Economic Development Committee.

Herget could appeal to the city Zoning Board of Appeals, but said April 6 he was not sure what his next step would be.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Less than 50 feet of Wharf Street in Portland’s Old Port separates Oasis, on the left, from Bonfire, right. But it was enough to prevent Bonfire from obtaining a license for live music.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.