If you ask Jeff Curran, all he ever wanted was to be able to brew and sell beer out of his Portland home.
“It seemed like a great location,” Curran said of his house at 165 Washington Ave. “It has a great yard. I thought I’d like to have a tasting room, maybe outdoor eating space.”
Curran, however, is in a state of limbo that he believes is squarely the city’s fault. He said the city has placed “exorbitant” fees on him and his fledgling business while preventing him from obtaining licenses he believes nearby businesses have had no trouble getting.
“Really simply, I started a business and got shut down for no reason of my own,” he said.
Curran, 43, founded Newscapes Brewery in 2018, with the idea for it to be a family business with his parents in the home he’s had for about 18 years. Production was essentially just enough to fill a five-gallon bucket. But when he tried to open his business up to the public he began to run into trouble.
Curran said the city gave him an ultimatum: Move the business or shut it down.
“We thought that was insane,” Curran said. “So we talked to the city, and they said you need to get a zoning change or a map amendment.”
At the end of the first year of brewing, he was hit with $7,500 in fees from the city, which he said he couldn’t pay.
“We didn’t have the money, we spent everything on getting started,” Curran said. “At that point we had lost out on a whole season, we were completely let down. And at the same time, bars all around us were opening up.”
So far, Curran estimates he’s spent more than $15,000 trying to start his business, including $10,000 in attorney fees. He sued the city, but the $7,500 was eventually waived and he dropped the lawsuit. But after moving the brewing operation to Cape Elizabeth, which Curran said has been much more cooperative than Portland, he said he opted to pursue a restaurant license instead of the brewery.
“We put a lot into it and enjoyed it, and people liked our beer,” he said.
Curran said he’s also weighed the possibility of eventually starting a distillery at his home business, and selling recreational marijuana, although for now he’s only focused on selling beer and housemade pizza.
He said he’s also run into conflict with city officials for recording conversations with them. He said his intent wasn’t malicious, but it resulted in city attorneys telling him he came off as threatening to staff.
Despite Curran’s claims that the city is stonewalling him, however, city officials said he’s been in a position to get what he wanted but has kept changing his mind about what he wants to do.
According to Jessica Hanscombe, the city’s acting director of permitting and inspections, Curran applied for three different licenses, for a variety of brewery and restaurant proposals. Hanscombe said the first two applications did not meet zoning requirements, while the third is pending inspections.
Kevin Kraft, deputy director of planning and urban development, said a recent proposal before the Planning Board would have allowed Curran to operate the brewery and tasting room. However, that fell through after the board tabled the item, following a spat with Curran during a remote Jan. 26 meeting.
Kraft said Curran received a violation notice from the city for illegally operating a brewery in a non-conforming zone. Curran’s address on Washington Avenue is in the B1 zone, which Kraft said allows for smaller neighborhood retail establishments.
Kraft said Curran submitted an application for a zoning amendment, which went to a Planning Board workshop, and board members had concerns about fully rezoning the parcel. Curran wanted the property to become part of the B2B zone, which would allow higher-intensity retail establishments. Kraft said the board recommended a text amendment, rather than a zoning amendment.
The difference, he explained, is that a text amendment acts as a rubber stamp and writes new zoning text, whereas a map amendment would have required the property to enter an entirely different zone.
Curran argues it makes little sense to leave his property in a zone that’s harder to start a business, while other parts of Washington Avenue are already in an easier to navigate zone.
“I was definitely frustrated, but I’ve just been asking (the city) ‘why?’” he said. “I’m just blown away why it’s taken so long.”
In the end, Kraft said, had the text amendment been approved, Curran could have had the brewery and tasting room.
“It would have allowed him to move forward with what his desired outcome was,” Kraft said.
At the Planning Board Meeting on Jan 26, for the public hearing on the text amendment, Curran became visibly frustrated, often trying to speak over board members. He was muted a handful of times during the Zoom meeting, but continued trying to speak and eventually shouted at the board to stop muting him. Curran was then removed from the Zoom, and his lawyer apologized for the outburst.
Kraft said Curran will have to work with city staff to bring something back before the Planning Board if he wants to pursue the brewery. He said the city is working with its corporation counsel on the best way to proceed because it remains “unclear what (Curran) is really asking for.”
Until then, he said, both the city and Newscapes remain in a holding pattern.
“We want to know the best way to proceed, and we don’t want to bring something before the Planning Board that the applicant doesn’t really want,” Kraft said.
Curran said he wanted to get into the brewery business after working in landscaping for 20 years. He did some home brewing before, and in 2018, after seeing new breweries pop up around the city, decided to try his hand.
From the start, he said, Newscapes was successful and he was able to sell his beer to local restaurants and liquor stores. He said while that was a good way to get the company’s name out there, they wanted to be able to have a tasting room since there’s more opportunity to make a profit than by selling bottles wholesale.
But it was when he decided to open a tasting room that he ran into trouble.
“We were up and running, and somehow we slipped through a crack with the city,” he said.
After struggling with the city over brewery and restaurant licenses, Curran said he’s moved the actual brewing operation to his father’s home in Cape Elizabeth. The plan is to do the brewing, bottling and kegging in Cape Elizabeth, and then sell out of the Washington Avenue home when it’s up and running. He also hopes to do curbside delivery from the Portland house.
“The whole thing came down to ‘you can’t brew here,’” he said. “Really? So, you can’t mix sugar and water and yeast, but you can sell the finished product here?”
Curran believes there’s a chance the city would rather see a bigger development on his property, like the other high-end condominiums around Munjoy Hill. He also knows he needs to keep his emotions in check. He said he was sorry for losing his temper during the Planning Board meeting, but is frustrated by a process he believes is intentionally slow.
“We never wanted to be a restaurant, we wanted to be a brewery,” he said last week from the tasting room in his home. But, he said the city’s code seemed to favor this use over a brewery.
“It’s been two years of just getting rolled over and not being given a fair chance,” he said. “I’m not angry, I’m just let down.”