SACO A business owner’s quest to operate a lounge where customers can both drink and smoke slowed this week as neighbors and city officials questioned his request to allow patrons to bring their own liquor to Saco River Cigars.

Daniel Vela, owner of the cigar shop on Middle Street, is seeking approval to register as a bottle club, which would allow patrons to bring their own liquor and beer to the existing two-story cigar lounge. It would be the only so-called bottle club in the city, and one of fewer than two dozen statewide.

But several residents of the area where the cigar shop is located are skeptical of Vela’s plans and say they are worried about the effect a bottle club would have on their neighborhood, which is tucked just off Main Street in a densely populated area. Four residents spoke against the bottle club during a public hearing Monday night.

The City Council tabled the issue until September, after the city’s planning board has time to consider a conditional use permit for the business on Aug. 20. City Planner Bob Hamblen said the planning board will be concerned with impacts on abutters, including parking, hours of operation, noise and proper venting of cigar smoke.

The cigar lounge cannot allow customers to bring liquor until approval is granted by the state, which is waiting for a recommendation from the city.

A bottle club is not a bar because it cannot sell alcohol. But it is subject to many of the same rules.

Laurence Sanborn, supervisor of the state’s Division of Liquor Enforcement, said operators of bottle clubs are responsible for ensuring minors are not present at the establishment, alcohol is not being sold and that visibly intoxicated people are not drinking.

“They have the same standards as any other licensed establishment,” Sanborn said. Bottle clubs are subject to spot checks by liquor inspectors and must renew their application with the state annually.

If approval is granted, Vela said he will charge a membership fee for customers who want to bring their own liquor. He also will provide locked cabinets where customers can store open containers.

Vela, whose business moved from Main Street in June, said his request to allow patrons to bring their own liquor is driven by their desire for a place they can socialize and enjoy a drink and a cigar after a hard day of work. He said most of his customers are older than 35 and include police officers, lawyers and local business people who are willing to pay $6 to $30 per cigar.

“This is not a wild crowd. No one is going to go in there to get drunk,” Vela said. “They just want to have a little glass of liquor or beer with their cigar. Instead of going to a bar (where smoking is not allowed), they’d rather come enjoy a cigar.”

Under state law, operators of bottle clubs must annually seek permission to operate. There are 23 bottle clubs currently authorized to operate in Maine.

City Councilor Eric Cote, whose ward includes Middle Street, said he does not support allowing a bottle club in the neighborhood unless Vela is able to satisfy neighbors’ concerns about the potential for loud noise and rowdy behavior.

“Right now my sympathy is with the neighbors,” Cote said. “I wouldn’t want to live next to a bottle club. It just doesn’t go there.”

Colleen Sargent, who lives across Middle Street from the cigar lounge, said her concerns about Saco River Cigars started as soon as the business relocated from Main Street in June. During a particularly loud evening, she said it “sounded like a bomb going off the way they were hooting and hollering.” And, she added, “There’s plenty of stench. You can smell it from halfway down the street.”

But Sargent said her main concern is that a bottle club’s presence in the neighborhood could devalue property “because of the potential for violence or accidents from people coming out and driving under the influence.”

Sargent said she called police to report loud noise the first weekend it opened on Middle Street. Vela said he is aware of that incident – it was during a Bruins playoff game when the central air conditioning system was not working and the windows were open – but has not heard any complaints since.

Police Chief Brad Paul said the police department will not object to the bottle club because of a “very low” number of calls to the business. During the past year, police were called to Saco River Cigars three times – once for a noise complaint that was immediately addressed, once after a theft at the lounge and once for a minor business dispute, he said.

Vela believes a bottle club will complement the area because it will bring in people who are spending money at nearby restaurants and shops. But he said he also is aware of neighbors’ concerns about his new business model and wants to make sure they are comfortable with what he is trying to do.

“I want to get along with the neighbors,” Vela said. “If they have any complaints or concerns, I wish they’d come talk to me and I’ll straighten it out.”

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