Old Lantern under fire from neighbors

By Carrie Fenn | Contributor
Editor’s note: Charlotte is a town filled with innovators and entrepreneurs. With our new column, Keeping Company, Carrie Fenn will dig into the Charlotte business community to discover the joys and challenges of being a Vermont business owner

Old Lantern 58-9

Now owned and operated by the Gaujacs, The Old Lantern in Charlotte (above) has served food and hosted events since the 1960s. Photo: Alex Bunten

The Appeal

On November 4, 2015, Charlotte residents packed into Town Hall to hear an appeal requested by Adrian and Allison Wolverton, of Greenbush Road. Joining them as interested parties in the appeal regarding changes to the business practices of the Old Lantern owned by Roland and Lisa Gaujac, were Michael and Karen Frost and Justin and Maura O’Dea Wygmans, also of Greenbush Road. Frank Tenney, chair of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, opened the meeting by explaining that this would be a hearing of an appeal of Charlotte’s zoning administrator’s determination that a change from hosting catered events to using a full-service kitchen for on-site food preparation does not constitute an alteration or expansion in the pre-existing, non-conforming use of the Old Lantern Barn.

According to Charlotte Land Use Regulations, an alteration or expansion of the existing business would require the Gaujacs to “seek and obtain a conditional use permit in order to continue their present operations.” Mr. Tenney made it clear to the Wolvertons and the meeting attendees that the issue at hand was only whether improvements made to the kitchen constituted a change or alteration in the business that the Old Lantern has been engaged in.

That’s the technical and somewhat dry explanation of the Wednesday night hearing. Truth be told, this was the kind of meeting one sees in horror movies of old. There were no pitchforks or burning torches, but the packed room was full of impassioned people on both sides, although the crowd did seem to sway in favor of the Gaujacs. Here’s the lay explanation as to what went down that night.

Love is in the air?

The Notice of Appeal, as filed by the Wolvertons’ lawyer Michael J. Harris of the Burlington law firm Collins, McMahon & Harris requests that the ZBA reverse the zoning administrator’s determination that on-site food preparation does not change or alter the business conducted by the Old Lantern. The appeal then goes on to say in a lot of legal language that the on-site food preparation is causing smoke and odors where none existed previously. The appeal also contends that the Old Lantern is operating as a restaurant and that the increased noise from the new business practices exceeds 70 decibels, to the extent that during a recent ceremony every word of the wedding vows could be heard from 1,000 feet away.

Some things change, some things stay the same

The appellants contend that the Old Lantern ceased operations for six months during the transition to the Gaujacs’ ownership in 2006, which would violate conditions of the non-conforming use, although they provided no hard evidence to back this claim. The Frosts and Wygmans have both joined as interested parties to address concerns that the subdivision of 2003 should have triggered conditional use permitting. Their stance is that, while the Old Lantern operated just fine surrounded by over a hundred acres, once the property was subdivided and people built houses next to it, things couldn’t go on in the same way. And here is where things get a little tricky. Has the use changed, as the Wolvertons say? Or has it stayed the same but shouldn’t have been allowed to, as the Frosts and the Wygmans say? It’s a bit of a conundrum, surely.

Back to the meeting

I know, you all just want to get to the good stuff, like the usual suspects shouting out of turn and the chair threatening to kick everybody out. It took a little while for things to ramp up, however. The Wolvertons’ lawyer started the questioning, treating the meeting as though it were a court of law. Chairman Tenney shut that down pretty quickly in the interest of time and asked Mr. Harris to please move things along. During a description of the kitchen improvements, which involved a new dishwasher and a free base sink, which Allison Wolverton claimed had not existed before (eliciting a cry of “That’s crazy!” from someone in the crowd), ZBA member Andrew Swayze had to remind audience members to please wait their turn to speak. Mrs. Wolverton’s complaints of the noise and smells emitted by the new exhaust system caused another outburst from someone in the audience, and there were several requests for the Wolvertons and their lawyer to speak louder. Mr. Harris closed by saying that the new kitchen and subsequent licenses and permits issued by the State of Vermont had caused an increase in the number of events at the Old Lantern, although, again, Harris cited no hard evidence of that increase, at least in the public meeting.

Liam Murphy, lawyer for the Gaujacs, then explained the history of the Old Lantern, which, as he stated, has been an event facility that has served food out of the kitchen since the 1960s. He noted that the space has been used continuously and that events had been held during the six-month period of supposed inoperation before the Gaujacs purchased the property. Lisa Gaujac said she could provide evidence with dates and receipts, if requested. She also explained the reason for the various changes to the kitchen, which required neither a building permit nor a change in the existing footprint. The addition of a deeper sink, an open floor trap and an exhaust range are all requirements that have been installed since the kitchen was originally built. The Gaujacs also replaced the existing 12-burner range with a newer model of the same size.
Perceptions seemed to play a big part in this meeting. There was quite a bit of focus on the notion that the Old Lantern, due to its permits and licenses, has turned into a “restaurant.” The appellants  noted that the Gaujacs have had, on occasion, food-and-wine—and  tastings designed for potential clients and open to the public. The Gaujacs claim this practice is in place to create a more festive atmosphere for the brides and grooms to be.

Various people then addressed the board to confirm that the Old Lantern has always been an event facility where food was prepared and served, that upwards of 60 events have occurred at the Old Lantern each year, that loud music has been played consistently over the decades (King Crimson and Ben Harper, to name a few) and that the classification of the Old Lantern as a “restaurant” on licenses and permits was a result of the lack of an “event facility” option on such documents.

“300 steaks burning”

Adrian Wolverton asked for an opportunity to address the board. He described the impact of living near the Old Lantern—windows shaking from the loud music, the smoke and noxious fumes from “300 steaks burning,” causing his clothes and home to reek of smoke and grease. Mr. Wolverton also said he would welcome the approval of a conditional use permit for the Gaujacs if they were required to apply for one.

The Wygmans in a memo to the ZBA dated November 3, 2015 also cited excessive noise. The memo states

“Currently, we estimate that the Old Lantern hosts over 60 events per year, mostly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings. This is a great increase from the 5-10 events per year that occurred when we first purchased our property. Many of these events include an outdoor celebration. This expansion of use to outside the building is particularly incompatible with neighbors who are home on weekends and wish to utilize their yards for normal weekend activities, and is a new use for the facility. The celebration then moves indoors and is often accompanied by loud dance music. We have provided the Town with documentation that the Old Lantern exceeds 70 decibels at the property boundary on a regular basis. The Town Administrator also found that the Old Lantern noise was exceeding 70 decibels. We hear this music over our own outdoor speakers when we are on our back porch. We hear this music until 11 PM inside our home, even with all the windows closed. We avoid our home on most weekends, because we cannot enjoy our own property.”

The Gaujacs said that they have recently begun to monitor decibels after a letter from Charlotte Zoning Administrator Jeanine McCrumb in June warned them they had exceeded the permitted 70-decibel limit. Since they began monitoring, decibels have not exceeded 65, according to Mr. Gaujac.

Awaiting the decision

Eventually, after many had the opportunity to recount the history of the Old Lantern and the fact that food and music had been consistently provided over the last several decades, the board felt it had enough information to reach a decision. The meeting was closed, and all concerned parties, which clearly goes well beyond those listed on the appeal, will await the decision. Because there are several legal considerations at work, the Frosts and Wygmans declined to speak on the record, and this reporter was unable to locate contact information for the Wolvertons, who moved to Charlotte in November of 2014.

Carrie Fenn has been a Vermont business owner since 1994, when she co-founded Muddy Waters in Burlington. She also owned Fibonacci’s in Shelburne and the Old Brick Store in Charlotte. She currently partners with her husband, Peter, at Charlotte Real Estate, an independent real estate agency, and Fenn & Company, a design/build firm, both located in Charlotte.

Carrie can be reached at carrie@thecharlottenews.org.