BAR HARBOR — A plan to close a section of Cottage Street for a Saturday afternoon in January for the Bar Harbor Winter Beer Fest, expected to be a routine procedure when it went before the town council last week, caused unexpected controversy. Because the event involves alcohol being served on town property, the town council needed to approve an exception to its alcohol policy. It did so Tuesday, by a vote of 5-1.
The Beer Fest is organized by the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with Atlantic Brewing. For the first two years, it was held on private property at Atlantic’s facility in Town Hill. Last winter the event moved downtown to the street in front of the new Atlantic Midtown tap room. One block is closed to traffic and a detour is clearly marked, organizers said. Pedestrians can be escorted through the closed area.
Councilor Stephen Coston, who is an owner of the Midtown Burger business in the same building as Atlantic Brewing Midtown, recused himself from the discussion and the vote.
According to Police Chief Jim Willis, the event has gone well in the past. He and Fire Chief Matt Bartlett both wrote memos of support to accompany the event application, submitted on behalf of the Chamber by Executive Director Martha Searchfield.
Councilors debated whether or not a public road could be closed for an event that would seem to benefit a business.
Searchfield first presented the application to the town council Nov. 27. The outdoor, ticketed event involves brewers from all over Downeast Maine, she said.
“It went very smoothly last year,” Searchfield told councilors. “It was just a great event, and we’d like to do it again this year.”
Councilor Matthew Hochman said he had reservations about closing off a street for a ticketed event. “My issue is when we close a street, and you have to pay to access public property.”
Councilor Erin Cough asked why the Chamber chose the location in font of Atlantic Brewing. Searchfield said it was to allow the business to surrender their liquor license for the event.
Alex Maffucci of Atlantic Brewing explained that the brewery “forfeits” its liquor license for the duration of the event — it’s not allowed to sell beer inside the bar or restaurant areas — and instead that license covers the sale of beer at the outdoor beer tent.
“The state is allowing us to forfeit our license for this event with the agreement that it is somewhat in our view, and in our control,” he said.
Cough asked Maffucci if the liquor license would cover an event at a different location such as the Village Green. He answered, “I doubt it.”
“That is my major problem with this,” Cough said. “I don’t think our town should close a street to promote one business. So I’m going to vote against it, even though it’s a great event.”
Councilor Paul Paradis said the town’s alcohol policy prohibits alcohol in parks or on town property. argued against Cough’s Village Green suggestion, bringing up the town’s alcohol policy.
Hochman asked if the restrictions on serving alcohol on “town property” extended to town roads as well as parks. “Should we set aside the policy before voting?” he asked.
Paradis answered, “I’m not sure a street is town property. But the safest thing is to set aside the town’s alcohol policy.”
Town Manager Cornell Knight told councilors that they could only vote to set aside the alcohol policy if two town councilors put the issue on a future agenda. Council Chair Gary Friedmann and Paradis said they would request in writing to put the issue of setting aside the alcohol policy on the agenda for the next meeting on Dec. 4.
“I think sometimes people forget that the Chamber is nonprofit,” Searchfield said during the public comment period at the beginning of the Dec. 4 meeting. “We can’t do it all ourselves, and that’s why we seek sponsors.”
With no additional discussion, councilors voted to set aside the alcohol policy and to approve closing the road for the Bar Harbor Beer Fest.
Both votes were 5-1, with Joe Minutolo, Judith Noonan, Hochman, Paradis, and Friedmann in favor, and Cough opposed. Coston recused himself from both votes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the vote counts on the council motions. Stephen Coston recused himself from both votes. The Islander apologizes for the error.