Despite the promise of a swift decision, the live music permit for Stowe Cider — once approved by the development review board and then put in limbo after an appeal filed by a neighbor — was finally approved on Sunday, nearly 45 days after it was last considered and the summer season had passed.
The permit was approved narrowly in a 4-3 vote and comes with tight restrictions on the frequency and decibel-level of the musical performances allowed, after an initial permit approved in May had no such restrictions.
Only good through the month of October, the cidery will need to apply for the same permit all over again next year.
“We’re going to be able to make the most of this,” Mark Ray, Stowe Cider’s owner, said. “For one month, the restrictions aren’t too bad, but there’s definitely a need for some clarification.”
The permit allows for outdoor concerts in the garden facing the mountain to no later than 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Sundays and 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Only 15 concerts can use amplified music and concerts on Thursdays and Sundays must be acoustic only.
“As it stands now, 15 amplified music events per season, which is set to run May 15 through Oct. 31, really needs to be defined a bit more. So, when we have a singer-songwriter or solo artist who’s essentially playing acoustic, is that going to be classified as an amplified music event when it’s free and just part of background for a regular taproom experience? If so, that’s a big problem,” Ray said.
The permit requires Stowe Cider to hire an audio professional to help manage the sound at events, something that Ray was already planning to employ; it also requires that the noise level at the boundary line of the property be no greater than 85 decibels, roughly equivalent to the sound of a window air conditioner or heavy traffic.
Ray said he felt the board missed an opportunity to work with his business on determining the appropriate decibel level for live music and that the number landed upon was “arbitrary.” Events scheduled for September and October will give him an opportunity to measure the sound level and work with an audio engineer.
According to Ray, this may be the most restrictive live music permit granted in Stowe. The experience has left him wondering if a universal noise ordinance in the town would make more sense than allowing the board to decide what’s allowed on a case-by-case basis.
“There’s other businesses in town that have approvals for events that don’t have these decibel-level restrictions or the requirements of sound professionals that we have,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of creative liberties for the development review board and what they’re allowed to do.”
Zoning administrator Sarah McShane did not respond to a request for comment on how the permit granted to Stowe Cider compared to other live music and event permits granted by the town, but has stated in previous interviews that such permits often have regulations regarding noise attached.
A permit to host music in the outdoor space behind Stowe Cider had been approved in May, but an appeal filed by the lawyer of David Gellis, a neighbor living over a mile away from Stowe Cider, complained of the noise, prompting the board to reconsider. Ray’s permit was suspended in June.
At a board meeting in July, Gellis submitted testimony along with nine other neighbors with concerns about the noise created by Stowe Cider events. Though an online petition garnered 1,500 signatures, Ray only had three supporters submit testimony at the hearing and one of them was a Stowe Cider employee.
Gellis did not respond to a request for comment but did tell the website VTDigger the board’s decision was a “fair compromise.”
The lack of communication from the board and the long-delayed decision in particular frustrated Ray. The live music permit was tied to the use of the expansive garden area behind Stowe Cider’s main building, so the reconsideration drastically limited the amount of outdoor seating Stowe Cider was able to offer during a summer where COVID-19 concerns, far less communicable in outdoor settings, still plagued restaurants and bars.
The cidery closed for a weekend after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus in July.
“Our biggest complaint is the fact that they promised us an expedient turnaround on this process, and they delivered the decision with less than half a day until the deadline,” Ray said. “Had we known it was going to take so long, we would have said, ‘Forget the music, just let us operate in the garden for a patio service.’ We would have been able to salvage the summer and the business that we were really anticipating doing this year, after putting so much time and energy and money into our space back there to accommodate our guests.”
Ray estimated that being unable to make use of the garden resulted in cutting the hours of six seasonal employees and anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 in lost revenue.
He also noted that the growing threat of the Delta variant of COVID-19 is making for an uncertain winter. Instead of building up a nest egg for the winter, Stowe Cider was harried by permit troubles.
While Ray will be testing the limitations of the permit he’s been granted through October, he’s already looking ahead to November, when he plans to apply for next year’s permit with the hopes that some clarity and better working relationship can be achieved with the review board.
“‘We’ll give you an answer soon,’ they said. And then they didn’t give the answer soon,” Ray said. “So, we weren’t able to pivot as a company. The communication from the town, quite frankly, was just lacking.”