BERLIN – Town officials approved a site plan for the Berlin Commons, an outdoor special event and community space, after a lengthy discussion Wednesday.
A week after the proposal earned approval from the Berlin Historic District Commission, The Buzz Meadery’s plan for the Berlin Commons received approval from the Berlin Planning Commission. The commission voted 4-1, with commission member Newt Chandler opposed, to approve the site plan.
“I just think it’s a bad fit,” Chandler said. “On three sides there are residences. It’s awful vague what’s going on there and how it’s going to be managed.”
Brett and Megan Hines, owners of The Buzz Meadery, are in the process of purchasing the vacant lot on Jefferson Street from Habitat for Humanity of Worcester County. They want to turn the lot into a fenced-in community green space that the meadery can use for special events on the weekends. When they’re not using it, they said they’d encourage visitors or community members to take advantage of the space to eat lunch or sit outdoors.
Though the project received 87 letters of support prior to last week’s historic district commission meeting, town officials said a few concerns had been expressed by neighboring property owners this week. Patrick Vorsteg, owner of 15 Gay St., said he saw the lack of a bathroom on the site as a major issue. Though the Berlin Commons rendering showed a portable toilet, town staff said last week that town code wouldn’t permit it to be left there indefinitely.
“To have a business model whereby you are selling a liquid consumable product should include having restrooms available,” Vorsteg’s letter read. “I realize it may not be legally required but it is the right thing to do.”
Washington Street resident Barb Stack also shared some concerns.
“I love the idea of keeping this corner as a green space but I’m concerned this semi enclosed space will be misused by the public when no one is around,” her letter read, pointing out that it could be a site for people to throw trash or for homeless to sleep.
Chandler said he saw the lack of bathroom as a major issue too, particularly since patrons would be drinking alcohol. Brett Hines said that they couldn’t afford to build a permanent restroom and so had planned to use a portable toilet until they’d found out the town wouldn’t allow it.
“It’s a tough spot,” Hines said. “I’m not sure what the answer is.”
Ivy Wells, the town’s economic and community development director, said the town’s public restroom was only 500 feet away.
Chandler said he felt it was his duty as a planning commission member to consider whether he’d want whatever was proposed if he lived on that street.
“The answer is no because it’s an outdoor venue which sets a precedent, I think a bad precedent, if we start allowing this sort of thing,” he said, adding that a recent gathering on Artisans Green had disrupted neighbors. “That was ripping and raring like I’ve never heard before and nobody did anything about that. If we have that stuff all over town, it’s not fair to the people that live in the area.”
Brett Hines said the meadery was planning to be involved in art walks and similar events.
“It’s a place where people who live in our town can come together and showcase the things they’re making, selling, creating,” he said. “That’s the essence of what this space is.”
His wife pointed out that the lot right now was vacant and used as overflow parking.
“It’s really an eyesore,” she said. “We’re trying to beautify this. We’re trying to make a place people want to be. I genuinely don’t think our community is going to destroy it and throw trash there and have homeless people living in there.”
Wells pointed out that the town code would allow the meadery to set up a portable toilet on weekends when it was hosting special events at the site. Planning Director Dave Engelhart agreed.
“They can be temporary,” he said. “It can’t be there 24/7.”
Wells added that while commission members might be worried about outdoor drinking, the town already had establishments that served alcohol outside.
“There’s this illusion that this beautiful green space is going to turn into this big rowdy beer garden,” she said. “We have several locations where alcohol is served outdoors.”
Chandler said they weren’t shoved up against a residential neighborhood as this one would be.
Wells said that if the commission was going to give so much weight to a few letters of concern submitted this week the “100-plus positive letters” submitted on the meadery’s behalf last week should be read.
“We’ve heard three negative letters tonight,” she said. “I think it’s really important to listen to the positive feedback the community has sent in full support of is project.”
Commission members Ron Cascio and Chris Denny said they too had concerns about the lack of a bathroom at the site, particularly during one of the meadery’s events.
“That’s when it becomes an issue, when there’s 50 people there and they’re there for hours,” Cascio said.
Commission member Matt Stoehr said that if that was the concern, perhaps the solution was to require the meadery to provide a portable toilet each time it hosted an event. He said that when the meadery wasn’t holding an event, alcohol wouldn’t be being sold on the site and a restroom wouldn’t be needed.
Brett and Megan Hines said they’d already agreed to provide a portable toilet during events and were happy to do that.
When the issue of noise was raised, Wells pointed out the Globe already had an outdoor bar in the vicinity.
“Aren’t we only talking about really making noise until 9 o’clock on a Friday or … a potential Friday, Saturday, Sunday?” Stoehr said. “The rest of the days this just becomes a beautified park Berlin’s not paying for.”
Chandler said he still had concerns about the plan because it was so close to so many homes. The commission voted 4-1, with Chandler opposed, to approve the plan as long as The Buzz Meadery had a portable toilet set up during special events.