Special Permit applicant Mike Achilles got his approval to open up the Mary Celeste Neighborhood Lounge at 149-151 Front Street, but it wasn’t a unanimous vote amongst Marion Planning Board members, and residents also remained divided on the issue.
Achilles began his presentation on March 4 by reminding the board that he and his wife and their four children live a mere block away from the proposed location of the restaurant. The application for a special permit for a change of use of the former Book Stall property from retail to restaurant in the limited business district drew a large crowd to listen to the applicant’s review of the proposal.
Achilles is also applying for a special permit for the reduction of the parking requirement for the business, which he asserts is a restaurant, in alignment with the Town’s bylaw definition of a restaurant, “a building … containing tables … for at least 2/3 of its legal capacity … used for the indoor sales and consumption of food prepared on the premises.”
The capacity of the Mary Celeste is 50, with tables to accommodate 34 patrons.
The public hearing moved quickly to comments from town residents, the first of whom was Kate Ross, owner of a restaurant located across from the proposed Mary Celeste. She reiterated her concerns about the parking issue, which she had expressed at the previous public hearings, adding, “If we do it for one, we should do it for everybody – if we bend the rules.”
Responding to a concern raised at a previous hearing, Achilles informed the board that he had installed a noise monitoring system in the restaurant, which will alert him as well as the restaurant manager in real-time if the noise level goes above “reasonable levels,” which, Achilles assured the group, will be set very low.
Later in the evening, Achilles described the decibel level testing he had performed recently at the restaurant. During the test, the noise levels inside the building with the doors closed registered at 110 decibels with a vacuum, table saw, and radio playing, whereas outside the building the decibel levels reached 45 decibels, equivalent to a “hummingbird in your ear,” he said.
A number of residents had concerns about noise from the establishment, in particular members of the Sippican Woman’s Club, which has owned the building across Front Street since 1923.
The Club expressed concern about their ability to retain tenants in the three apartments in the building.
The Club’s property manager, Jeanne Bruen, suggested, “When someone is looking to rent, we want a desirable property.”
The Club uses their income to provide scholarships in town, fund the library, and other philanthropic endeavors. When asked by Planning Board Chairman Will Saltonstall if the Club met all the needs of its organization with its off-street parking, Bruen noted that the tenants each have a spot, but, with 80 organization members, if there are larger events, the overflow goes to Island Wharf.
“Like many village businesses,” Saltonstall said, “you may not be compliant [with the current parking requirements].”
Sue Granger, a past president of the Club, also expressed concern about “the smoking of pot.” She said, “They could be quiet, but outside smoking pot, that’s not okay.” She mentioned that most of the businesses in the village are retail, with shoppers spending less than an hour at a time in the stores. The Mary Celeste, she surmised, would want people staying for two or more hours at a time.
Achilles responded to this idea by saying that the idea behind the Mary Celeste is to provide a place for “people to get out of their house,” and, “it’s not a place to hang out all night.” He added that the parking issue, while a problem overall, would be mitigated by his business opening at a time when many other village businesses were closing.
The current president of the Club, Mary Verni, stated, “[I have a] fiduciary responsibility. If we lose renters, can we make it a tavern? If we can’t rent to tenants, we lose our philanthropy. Our tenants are at-will. We have to think about our neighbors.”
Dan Crete rose to speak in favor of the proposal, and, in response to the Woman’s Club’s concerns, he said he believed the lounge would be a great addition to the village, bringing a “more thriving, more friendly economy” to the village.
“[it could] enhance your ability to rent your apartments,” said Crete, adding that, in his experience, the village absorbs parking very well. The Town’s Master Plan, he reminded the group, encourages more diverse thriving business in the village, concluding, “I whole-heartedly support this proposal.”
Resident Peter Douglas suggested that the application for a special permit was the wrong approach to the parking issue. In a letter to the board, Douglas wrote, “The Planning Board should affirmatively make the disciplined effort to plan to resolve these issues,” rather than interpreting the bylaw on a case-by-case basis. He also argued that the Mary Celeste was not a restaurant, saying, “I know the difference. … Bars and lounges are modern and should be in Marion.” However, he suggested the town voters should make a bylaw change to allow those uses in town.
Planning Board member Eileen Marum asserted that giving Achilles “a special deal paid for and supported [by the residents],” would equate to “subsidizing the Mary Celeste.” Ross’ restaurant, the Sippican Lands Trust, and other village businesses, she said, supply their own parking.
“I’m not anti-business,” Marum said, “I’m just applying the bylaw as it stands.”
Saltonstall responded, “If the board can’t consider a special permit, we are saying no more businesses can come to Marion. I disagree the business is taking advantage of the public. No new business, with few exceptions, can provide their own parking.”
Andrew Bonney supported Achilles, saying he understood the character of Marion, and that the Mary Celeste was “very consistent with the type of gathering place for the village.” Bonney continued, “[It’s] open to everyone; [it] does not require a membership.”
Planning Board member Andrew Daniel reported that town counsel was of the opinion that the board could negotiate on and off-street parking within the special permitting process.
Crete rose again to say that his business, like all the village businesses, uses Island Wharf heavily in the summer.
“In a way,” Crete went on, “it is before the voters. We put you all in place [on the Planning Board], it is well within your authority. We all agree there is enough parking at Island Wharf.”
Ross disagreed, saying that Marion is “mobbed in the summer.” She said, “The yacht club fills the streets, the wharf fills up. I don’t want to be the jerk saying don’t park in my lot. I’m all for a bar, let’s change the bylaw.”
Ross leases parking spaces in an adjacent lot beside her restaurant for the exclusive use of her patrons.
In an ironic twist, Daniel remarked that the testimony offered by the Sippican Woman’s Club supported Achilles’ application, saying that the village businesses “make it work” when they need additional parking beyond what the business can provide for its visitors, customers, and members.
“If we held each business to the parking limit, we are done with economic growth. … Every business uses Island Wharf, the problem is with someone new using it. Part of the beauty of the village is the walk, the visit. I feel strongly the village will absorb the parking, especially with the hours of operation.”
Achilles plans to open from 3:00 pm – 10:00 pm.
Planning Board member Steve Kokkins said that while the lounge description is quite appealing, “In my opinion, this is not a restaurant and will need to be addressed. I support the idea, and feel the bylaw needs to be changed to allow this kind of use.”
Member Norm Hills suggested that anyone who would like to change the bylaw bring the idea to the bylaw codification committee, which is currently working on modifying the Town bylaws.
Marum underscored the concerns of the Sippican Woman’s Club, revisiting the possibility of noise and raised the issue of safety of on-street parking.
“A bar is not in our table of uses,” Marum stated.
Member Chris Collings quipped, “What’s Gilda’s? If we want to split hairs … private spaces sometimes open to the public, sometimes not. … I don’t know what kind of island we want to stand on here to define a restaurant.”
Saltonstall concurred, saying, “Personally, I think it is reasonable to define this as a restaurant.”
Town Planner Gil Hilario added, “The floor plan shows many tables, not just a bar.”
The board voted to approve the special permits to allow the change of use from retail to a restaurant and for a reduction in the parking requirements, with a vote of 5-2 on each, with members Kokkins and Marum dissenting. The board unanimously approved the minor site plan review, contingent on a final plan showing the location of the disability access ramp.
The next meeting of the Marion Planning Board is scheduled for March 18 at 7:00 pm at the Marion Town House.
Marion Planning Board
By Sarah French Storer