Rwanda Bean on Cottage Road in South Portland wants to stay open longer hours and sell beer and wine. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND — A year-old Cottage Road coffee shop received preliminary permission Wednesday to extend its hours and serve beer and wine, despite complaints the business has been illegally roasting coffee.

Rwanda Bean at 185 Cottage Road, South Portland. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

The Planning Board approved an amended site plan sought by Rwanda Bean/White Cap Coffee and Cape Whoopies Bakery. The request to serve alcoholic beverages and operate from 5-10 p.m. now goes to the City Council for a first reading, although a date is uncertain.

“We weren’t trying to be rogue coffee roasters,” Rwanda Bean co-owner Ben Graffius told the board. “We believe there was a misunderstanding or miscommunication, but by no means did we spend $30,000 on equipment just to put it in front of a window and do it illegally.”

Walnut Street resident Michelle Patrick told the board she has seen people roasting in the building, through the windows, with no lights on. She said this suggests to her the business owners and employees were aware of the rules and were trying to operate in secret.

Co-owner Mike Mwenedata, who has lived in the city since 2012, said he’s grateful for the opportunity to have his business at 185 Cottage Road and has come to know many residents well. The decision to roast, he explained, was not made without regard for neighbors, but simply a matter of miscommunication.

“I miss many things about my home country, but I’m grateful to be the bridge between Rwanda and the United States,” he said. “Maybe there was some misunderstanding from our neighbors and they’re concerned by us not being good neighbors, but I’m a good neighbor.”

Graffius said rules and regulations about roasting were not clearly defined in the initial approval received from the Planning Board last year, but he and Mwenedata have since worked closely with city officials to better understand the rules.

According to Code Enforcement Director Barbara Skelton, large-scale coffee roasting isn’t allowed in the district at the foot of Meetinghouse Hill.

The businesses, which share the building previously occupied by Cherished Possessions at the corner of Cottage Road and Walnut Street, opened in May 2018.

Rwanda Bean owners Ben Graffius, left, and Mike Mwenedata, at the South Portland Planning Board meeting Aug. 14. Graffius told the board they’re not “trying to be rogue coffee roasters.” Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

Community Planner Steve Puleo said the initial Planning Board approval didn’t say roasting is not allowed in the Limited Business District, because the rules only listed what the businesses could do.

Tex Haeuser, director of planning and development in the city, said a code enforcement officer ordered Rwanda Bean to stop roasting on Sept. 18, 2018, after several complaints were received last fall. In February and March 2019, there were two more warnings to cease roasting, but no penalties were levied.

Skelton said future violations of the city zoning ordinance could include fees and other penalties. She said the Limited Business District where Rwanda Bean is located allows businesses to be open until 1 a.m., so proposed changes to extend hours and to sell beer and wine meet legal standards, regardless of the alleged coffee roasting.

“As long as the roasting issue can be fully put to rest, it’s difficult to see from a technical zoning point of view why their other requests shouldn’t be allowed,” Haeuser said.

Graffius on Wednesday also discussed other issues neighbors have brought to the city, including concerns about snow plowing and parking.

He said during city snowplows push Walnut Street snow against the building, making it difficult for the businesses to remove without the use of heavy machinery.

If they don’t move it quickly enough, Graffius said, it freezes over and makes it nearly impossible to address. He said he and Mwenedata plan to work closely with city plow services to ensure that the issue doesn’t persist next winter.

Planning Board member Linda Boudreau said she was concerned that a no-parking sign near the property was painted over, although Rwanda Bean employee Tom Marlow said the signs belong to the business, not the city.

But the Planning Board added a condition that no signs may be modified without board approval. Members also said if Rwanda Bean plans to have live music performances, the business must come back to the board for approval.

“There are no perfect solutions; everyone is just trying to live together and adjust and we hope that continues on a much wider basis,” Planning Board member William Laidley said.

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