2015-01-09 / Community

Sprague Corp. gets ‘special’ consideration

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — A town council attempt to secure the blessings of the Cape Elizabeth Planning Board for a zoning change that would allow the Sprague Corporation to continue holding weddings at its Wentworth Lodge estate stalled out Tuesday over issues of fairness to the rest of the town.

According to Town Planner Maureen O’Meara, Sprague Corporation was notified more than a year ago that its practice of renting out Wentworth Lodge — a 6.5-acre property located on Winters Lane, with an expansive view of the Atlantic Ocean — for weddings and other large gatherings was not allowed in Cape Elizabeth’s “Residential A” zone. That district, designed to preserve the town’s rural character by limiting business development, covers more than 50 percent of Cape Elizabeth.

Events were allowed to continue, however, while town staff met with Sprague representatives to hammer out a solution. Those meetings resulted in a proposed Special Event Facility Ordinance, which was presented to the town council on Dec. 8. The council immediately referred the zoning amendment to the planning board for comment, as required by state law, giving it a March 30 deadline under the town’s socalled 90-day rule.

Over the past year, the planning board has taken heat for the amount of time it takes to review zoning change proposals. However, Councilor Jamie Wagner said the invoking of the rarely enforced 90-day deadline was done primarily for Sprague’s benefit.

“The reason that we have a tight deadline here is mostly an accommodation to the Sprague Corporation,” he said at a planning board workshop on Tuesday. “If we don’t address this by March, the full council won’t get it back until May or later and they’ll miss applications for next year’s wedding season.”

According to planning board Chairman Victoria Volent, Sprague already has one wedding booked at the site for September.

Wagner, who is council liaison to the planning board, also is chairman of the council’s ordinance subcommittee, which will field the zoning proposal between the planning board review and submission to the full council for a vote.

According to O’Meara, her department was tasked with finding a way to allow large gatherings to continue at Wentworth Lodge while limiting the number of places where similar large gatherings could occur on a regular basis.

“It wasn’t really the expectation that the town would want large areas to be having this as an activity, that a lot of people might be uncomfortable with that, that we should be thinking of it as something that wouldn’t be happening in a lot of areas,” O’Meara said. “So, we dealt with that in a unique way.”

The proposed ordinance allows up to 24 gatherings per year of up to 275 people at each event on lots of at least 15 acres. However, because the Wentworth Lodge property measures 6.5 acres, the zoning amendment allows applicants to include abutting lots “in common ownership and sharing any portion of a lot line boundary with the special event facility.”

“We’ve never done that in an ordinance before,” O’Meara said. “Usually, there’s lot size [requirement] and that’s it. But this is crafted to be a little more unique in order to reflect the unique ownership of the Sprague Corporation.”

Three lots abut the Wentworth Lodge estate, all owned by Sprague as part of its Ram Island Farm complex. Together, the four lots total 18.9 acres.

“So, the purpose of this is to legitimize what’s already happening?” asked planning board member Josef Chalet.

“Yes, and it’s been going on for several years, at least,” Wagner said.

Applicants under the special event facility ordinance will be subject to site plan review by the planning board. While such plans would likely include temporary structures such as tents, porta-potties and lawn parking, it could include new construction. Alcohol consumption would be regulated under state law, but the only other restriction would be a limit on amplified sound to the hours of 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“I have to tell you, when this was drafted there was some thought of drafting it so tightly that only the one property owner could take advantage of it,” O’Meara said. “But that is not considered an equitable approach. If one property owner can do it then other similarly situated property owners should have a reasonable opportunity to do it as well, as uncomfortable as that concept can make us.”

Still, even with the 15-acre limit, O’Meara expects some pushback from residents, given some dozens of properties that would be allowed to host regular, large-scale events.

“I’ll tell ya, the neighbors of the Robinson Family lot on Shore Road are going to love the idea of a special event facility right there,” O’Meara said.

Meanwhile, planning board member Peter Curry, who served on the recent town center planning committee, said business expansion of any kind is often a taboo topic in Cape Elizabeth.

“Even with the town center, even a hint of expanding commercialization beyond where it is now, people freaked out,” he said.

“It sounds like we’re cobbling this together to accommodate [Sprague],” Volent said. “I can do that as long as we don’t allow it to spread. If people realize how much revenue they could generate, I don’t know what others will want to do.”

“But if you’re going to do something, you can’t do it so it’s specifically designed for one particular person. I think that’s wrong,” said planning board member Henry Steinberg.

Volent expressed concern that the new special events facility ordinance could conflict with rules enacted last year governing short-term rentals, the practice of property owners renting out their homes. Limits on the number of allowed occupants effectively barred such rentals from being used to host weddings.

If rushed through without careful review, loopholes might appear that would allow short-term rental properties to band together to host large events, or for people to stay overnight at special event facilities, Volent said.

The rush to enact changes in time for wedding season stuck in the craw of several board members.

“The council has given us a big ordinance package that we are working on,” said planning board member Elaine Falender. “I am pretty concerned that we are being asked to come to a final decision on this by March 31, given all the public comment it will generate, when we already have so much on our plate. I feel this is jumping the queue to satisfy one interest of one property owner, pushing aside work we are already doing on behalf of the entire town.

“I don’t think we have time to consider this kind of town-wide opening up of commercial use of this nature between now and March 31 given the other huge ordinance package we are about to bring to the public,” Falender said.

The planning board debated simpley adding Sprague’s Ram Island complex properties to the town’s business district, but feared public reaction, given how that change would open the area up to hotels and restaurants.

“I don’t think we want to become the special events capital of Southern Maine,” Volent said.

Still, even limiting special event facilities to 15-acre lots was deemed “completely inappropriate” by Falender, given its potential impact on rural residents.

For more than an hour the board debated the relative fairness of crafting a zoning change that would allow the Sprague Corporation to continue hosting weddings versus the ability of other property owners to do the same, on similar lots. Most agreed the town clearly does not want to expand commercial development, but also said the zoning cannot be changed to benefit the Spragues alone. That left O’Meara “feeling frustrated,” she said, over how to proceed.

“I know the more purple we see on this map the scarier it gets,” said Chalet, pointing to a map prepared by O’Meara of the lots that would be open to use for special events facilities, “but what’s equally scary is a blank map with just one purple blob down here at the Sprague property. I think that’s kind of why we are going in both directions.”

Ultimately, O’Meara said she will return to the next planning board meeting with a draft for an “overlay district” that would allow limited business uses in the Residential A zone area of Wentworth Lodge.

Wagner also promised to come back with answers from the town council, given stiff questioning by planning board members about what, exactly, the council was expecting of them.

“I think I need to come back with some guidance, because I don’t want the planning board going really far afield of what the council is requesting,” Wagner said. “I’m going to talk to my other council members individually and see what the will of the council is, to give you a little better direction.”

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