CAMDEN, Maine — Town officials are under pressure after a taco vendor and sporting goods store were kicked off the slopes of Camden Snow Bowl last weekend.
Owners of Sidecountry Sports and Cold Toes Tacos said they were “blindsided” last Thursday when the ski venue informed them they couldn’t open for business as usual.
“It was a pretty good shot to the stomach,” said Brian Beggarly, the owner of Camden’s McKay Food Co. who started selling tacos at the Snow Bowl during events earlier this summer. “Making the mountain a little more fun and keeping people out longer was really the goal.”
A crowd of supporters of the ski venue and businesses crammed into the Camden Select Board meeting on Tuesday night, filling every seat, standing in the back and sitting against walls. They urged the board to find a way to let the businesses back on the mountain, but town officials said it might not be that simple and could take weeks to get the businesses back.
Andrew Dailey of Sidecountry Sports, which operates sporting goods stores in Rockland and Belfast, said his company has been offering free demos of skis and fat-tire bikes at the ski area for three years without an issue.
Both he and Beggarly had worked out agreements with Town Manager Pat Finnigan and Landon Fake, the town’s parks and recreation director who also oversees operation of the town-owned ski area. The agreements allowed Beggarly and Dailey to set up shop at the ski area in exchange for giving 10 percent of their profits back to the venue, according to Beggarly.
After reviewing those agreements, however, the town’s attorney determined they skirted the local zoning approval process, making them invalid.
“It was my fault that I didn’t think about the zoning requirements,” Finnigan said in an interview this week.
She said it was understandable that the businesses and their supporters were upset by the sudden change.
Camden Snow Bowl is home to two other vendors, a restaurant and ski equipment retailer, but both those owners went through the zoning board approval process when they opened years ago, according to Select Board Chairman John French Jr.
The business owners went to social media after getting the news, prompting the large turnout at Tuesday’s meeting, where locals demanded answers and some board members called for quick action, even if it meant skirting the town’s zoning rules.
Board member Donald White said he was “very dismayed to see what took place” and wanted to find a way to allow the businesses to get back to the slopes this weekend. He suggested the town either issue a revocable license for 50 days, giving the businesses time to go through the planning board process, or have the code enforcement officer issue a noncompliance ruling, which might also buy the businesses time to continue operating until the zoning is sorted out.
Selectman Leonard Lookner argued that by breaking or subverting its own ordinance, the town could set a risky precedent.
“Zoning is there for a reason,” he said. “It’s protected us from a lot of less-than-pleasant things in the past.”
At the suggestion of Selectman Marc Ratner, the board ultimately voted 4-1 Tuesday night to have the town manager, attorney and Snow Bowl director sit down and determine whether there would be any legal way of speeding up the process of allowing the business endeavors to resume.
If the town decides there’s no way to speed up the process, the businesses may have to go through the normal zoning board process. At best, the Select Board could urge the zoning board to hold a special meeting, which could happen only after it’s published with 10-days notice.
“Winter is a short season,” Dailey said. “There’s only eight or nine Saturdays in the season, and for them to pull the rug out on two businesses in town in the middle of the season doesn’t seem to make sense.”
The meeting raised other questions about zoning rules at the Snow Bowl, which the town’s attorney will look into.
Camden Snow Bowl is the annual host of the U.S. National Toboggan Championships, which are scheduled for February. Each year, the event brings thousands of participants and spectators to the venue.
The event is run by a nonprofit entity, according to Finnigan, meaning championship organizers don’t require zoning approval to host the event. However, the vendors who descend on the event, which will include a beer tent this year, often are for-profit businesses.
French said that in fairness to Beggarly and Dailey, the town should also ensure that those for-profit vendors are in compliance with town ordinances.
“I’m not trying to create a problem, but I want to know,” French said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.