Stowe Cider owner Mark Ray stands in the cidery and taproom’s outdoor space on Thursday, July 15, 2021. Stowe Cider wants to continue hosting live music as it did during the pandemic, but faces opposition from a neighbor. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Last summer, Mark Ray was trying to figure out how to keep his business alive and his employees working.

He decided to take the music outside.

That’s when a clash of values arose between a business trying to survive the pandemic and neighbors who want to hold on to their quiet enjoyment of nature. 

Before the pandemic, Stowe Cider offered indoor musical performances at its taproom off of Route 108 in downtown Stowe. Guests could enjoy food and the cidery’s beverages. 

With pandemic restrictions on, the sculpture garden in back of Stowe Cider seemed a perfect spot for socially distanced performances. Soon, Stowe Cider was offering up to five performances a week, Ray said.

The Rusty Nail, next door, also offers live music.

This spring, the outdoor music returned to the garden. 

On May 4, Ray said, he went to Stowe’s Development Review Board to request a permit for food trucks and live music. The board voted unanimously to support his proposal. 

On June 7, the board issued a permit for 100 spectators. 

Stowe Cider began offering performances four days a week. Ray said they ended the music Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m.

“We’ve been considerate and thinking about the neighbors and voluntarily reducing our hours as not to disturb,” Ray, the owner of Stowe Cider, told VTDigger in an interview inside the taproom. 

Stowe does not have a noise ordinance. 

But Ray submitted a series of text messages to show that he tried to accommodate David Gellis, a neighbor who opposes the permit.

“So I was up [on Gellis’s street],” Ray texts at one point. “I could hear it outside but not inside a vehicle not running. Still working to adjust.”

“As you know, we spend a fair amount of time outside at our pool/on deck,” Gellis replies. “Hope we can find something that works for all. … Our lot has a fair amount of clearing toward the south so it is likely it is worse on our lot.…”

“We’ve adjust [sic] our time to end at 9:30 as an effort as well,” Ray writes back. 

“Mark, some feedback for you,” Gellis texts. “The music itself is lower, but the vocals are very loud. I am over a mile away and I heard everyword [sic] of graceland [sic]. We hear your music with our windows closed. That last finale is simply not acceptable to me.”

On June 25, Gellis asked the development review board to reconsider the permit. He asked that the board establish decibel limits for the project, require Stowe Cider to show proof that it consulted with a sound engineer to reduce the impacts of noise caused by the project, provide a plan for positioning speakers that must be approved by the board, limit outdoor music to once a week and require it to end by 8 p.m., and require that the permit expire on Aug. 1. 

Gellis asked that Stowe Cider be required to procure a sound study that measures decibel levels of the project and provide a plan for keeping decibel levels below World Health Organization guidelines prior to being allowed to host further outdoor concerts.

Town reconsidering

In mid-June, Ray said, he received a notice from the town instructing him to suspend all outdoor events until the development review board had reconsidered its decision.

Gellis declined to speak to VTDigger when reached at his home, but later issued a statement in which he retracts some of his demands.

“I personally had difficulty getting my 8-year old to bed because of the music volume,” Gellis said in the statement. “I personally love live music, but my little girl needs her sleep.”

“I sincerely hope that Stowe Cider continues to enjoy their permit,” Gellis continued. “In fact, if they can provide a commitment to the community to keep the music at levels in line with international norms and other local noise ordinances since Stowe does not have one, I happily and on the record retract any request for limits to frequency or time of music.”

Gellis’s next-door neighbor in the woods overlooking the golf course declined to comment. Other neighbors were not home. 

Employees fill cases with cans at Stowe Cider on Thursday, July 15, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Some neighbors have written to Gellis to support his efforts to lower the noise levels.

“The concerts at Stowe Cider has [sic] greatly affected us being able to enjoy the outdoors at our home,” wrote Eric Smith. “Due to the volume and the frequency of these concerts, we are unable to be outside or sometimes even have doors and windows open during these events. This past Saturday, June 19, was especially loud.”

Dale Neil said his family bought their home in Stowe Highlands seven years ago “because it offered both beauty and a sense of peace and quiet for our retirement years.” The noise last year was “so loud and annoying,” he said, that they went to Stowe Cider to address it, and the manager indicated they would try to keep it down.

“This year it is worse and beyond the norm,” he wrote. “We cannot sit on our terrace and enjoy a peaceful evening. It is embarrassing to have guests and not be able to converse without the discordant interruptions of the band. Often we need to retreat inside, actually closing the windows.”

Stowe resident Lisa Hocker wrote to town manager Charles Safford.

“The music is clearly loud and applause and hollering in the crowd is also very clear,” she wrote, later adding, “We purchased our property in Stowe because we love the area and the peacefulness of the mountains. It is becoming hard to enjoy.”

Safford replied that since Stowe has no noise ordinance, he has no authority to intervene, but he promised to go up some night and listen to the volume.

“Short of the time limit, which it sounds like they are complying with, I’m not sure there is an objective standard other than a decibel limit at their boundary,” Safford wrote to Hocker.

A point of friction

Stowe Cider is not the only business in Vermont facing opposition for hosting a music venue. Burton’s plans to move the Higher Ground concert series to its South Burlington campus has also met with resistance from neighbors.

Ray argues that the suspension of the license has affected people who need the work. 

He said he hired six people to get the operations in the garden going. 

The canning line at Stowe Cider is seen on Thursday, July 15, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Now that the music has stopped, Ray said two employees have left, since he was not able to promise them consistent hours or the opportunity and responsibilities they expected or wanted. He said he has been trying to find ways to keep current staff employed with odd jobs, reduced hours, or overstaffed shifts. 

In all, he said, eight people have had to reduce their hours and tips or change their schedule and responsibilities. In addition, Ray was planning to hire four to six more people for the peak season beginning on the Fourth of July, but he has not filled those positions, and he is not replacing four seasonal employees who are leaving. 

“It has been a huge blow to our team,” Ray said.

The development review board will meet Tuesday evening to listen to Gellis and other neighbors explain why the music should not be allowed. 

Gellis testified at the initial hearing, after which the board awarded the permit to Stowe Cider.

“The idea that we’re reconsidering the hearing and the permit for the same person who already spoke their mind and their piece on May 4 is a bit interesting to me, and we’re just a little bit confused by that,” said Ray. 

Gellis argued in his request for reconsideration that Ray misrepresented material facts in the original hearing.

More than 1500 people have signed an online petition supporting Stowe Cider. 

Others have written to the town.

“As abutting neighbors and town residents, we wanted to express our full support for Stowe Cider and 100{68e14e6e31db224cd7c1bdf2940b476d81e2fb293cb92c01b488fb781d0c8053} support their ability to hold outdoor music events in their garden venue,” wrote Scott Braaten. “We … hear their music loud and clear, which we very much enjoy. We can sit on our porch and hear the festive atmosphere or we can walk over and be a part of it.”

“Stalling this permit in the middle of the summer, in our busiest time, has cost jobs, wages and dollars not only for Stowe Cider, but more importantly, our staff and community members,” said Ray.

Ray expects a decision Tuesday night. The board sometimes renders verbal decisions after a hearing, but does not issue a final written ruling until after it has had time to deliberate. 

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