NORWAY — A plan to operate a wedding barn on Morse Road has prompted a group of North Norway residents to ask for help.
“It may be time for a little zoning,” Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman suggested to selectmen at their meeting last week.
The issue was brought about by the filing of a site plan review application from the potential buyer of an historic 19th century farm house at 107 Morse Road. Peter Ulrickson will ask the planning board to approve a change of use for the property to enable him to operate a “wedding barn.”
He is expected to meet with the planning board tonight, Jan. 14, beginning at 7 p.m., in the town office on Danforth Street, to continue discussions.
Norway currently has no zoning laws, and there are no guidelines on commercial business development in residential areas. The applicant has to meet certain conditions for the change-of-use request to be approved by the planning board.
The board will also have to determine whether the “wedding barn” business is a home business or commercial business.
Wedding barns have sprung up in the past several years throughout the area in Norway, Paris, Minot, Greenwood, Gray and beyond as brides and grooms look for a more nontraditional scenic and rustic venue for their weddings. The events can cost thousands of dollars and, in some cases, include amenities such as onsite lodging.
Because of concern over issues such as noise and traffic and other impacts to the area known as Swift’s Corner, a handful of residents asked Corey-Whitman about the possibility of zoning the outlying village area in North Norway as a way to control commercial ventures, such as the proposed wedding barn, that they say threatens the quiet way of life they are used to.
Selectman Russ Newcomb said he has “deep concerns” about the restrictions. Selectman Warren Sessions said he also was concerned about restrictions.
Corey-Whitman said she has contacted John Maloney, senior planner at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, who wrote the town’s 2004 updated Comprehensive Plan, to start the discussions.
Maloney told the Advertiser Democrat that Norway’s Comprehensive Plan and its amendments include the authority for town officials to create ordinances that essentially zone an area, such as they did with the downtown development district.
“The town doesn’t have zoning per se but they do have site plan review [and that allows for zoning under certain conditions], he said.
“It could be potentially done for that area,” Maloney said.
Corey-Whitman said a number of issues have to be determined before the planning board gives the Morse Road wedding barn the go-ahead. The house on the 20-acre property was built in 1820 and is known as The Old Whitmarsh Place.
Among the outstanding issues is whether the wedding barn is a home occupation or a commercial venture. A home occupation is an occupation or profession which is carried on in a dwelling unit and is clearly incidental and secondary to the use of the dwelling for residential purposes.
In this case the barn would be used for the weddings but a part of the house would be available for pre-wedding activities, such as the bride getting dressed.
If a home occupation permit is issued by the planning board, it would expire if the house was sold again. If it is deemed commercial, the use could continue despite a change in ownership.
Ulrickson has said that he and his family intend to live in the home and therefore would closely monitor what events he would allow on the property. The business will be called Whitmarsh, and events will be scheduled from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. with a limit of 125 guests. Events would only be held one weekend day a week and during the warm season as the barn is unheated.
If the events are limited to 125 people, he would not have to obtain a mass gathering permit.
Under the provisions of the ordinance, which applies to events of more than 250 people – selectmen may grant or deny the license or grant the permit with conditions such as requiring a corporate bond from a company, agree to hire security guards or police, and show that adequate facilities are being provided including sanitary waste facilities, water supplies and so forth.
Penalties for violations are considered civil penalties of not less than $100 nor more than $2,500 for each violation and attorneys fees and costs. Each day the violation occurs is considered a separate offense.
The mass gathering ordinance was written in 2007 by Norway officials concerned about the effect of large crowds at events, including festivals, to avoid the obstruction of roads, violation of liquor and drug laws and destruction of property. The petitioner must obtain a license from the selectmen after a public hearing.
It was prompted about 10 years ago by the music festivals run by Aaron Fuda of McKay Road in Norway. He claimed the ordinance was unconstitutional and was enacted because of his music festival – the Fully Unclothed Dancing Activism Festival – which was held for years on his Norway property to protest unjust laws, particularly marijuana laws.
In 2010, Frank Chandler appeared before selectman to obtain a permit for his three-day NATEVA music festival at the Oxford Fairgrounds that was headlined by Further and attended by thousands of people across the country.
This is not the first time residents in North Norway have expressed concern about the impact of a business on their quiet neighborhood roads.
In July 2014, the board voted 4-1 to approve a plan by Granite Ridge Estate to use a rural lodge and a new luxury barn at 65 Delano Drive for wedding parties and other events. The Delano Drive wedding barn is near the intersection of Morse Road and about two miles southeast of the proposed wedding barn.
The 2014 vote allowed Portland-based business owner Anthony Fratianne to host up to 200 people in a new 3,500-square-foot barn and timber-framed lodge which overlook the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The barn is accessed by Nancy Ann Drive, a narrow, private dirt road off Norway Center Road.
A large number of residents turned out in 2014 to oppose that venture based on many of the same concerns as the Morse Road proposal, but planning board members say they have not heard of any problems since the business started operating.
Corey-Whitman told selectmen that she believed the potential Granite Ridge event problems were minimized because, unlike Morse Road, Delano Drive is a private road and leads directly to the Granite Ridge Estates.