Thursday, April 24, 2014
VASSALBORO -- Donald Crabtree says he opened the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in 2009 so that he, his staff and his customers could smile.
COFFEE SHOP: Herman Jellison, of Whitefield, sits with his cup of coffee Tuesday morning as he talks with his waitress, Krista MacIntyre, at Grand View Topless Coffee Shop on Route 3 in Vassalboro. Owner Donald Crabtree said this week he will close the controversial business, which opened in 2009.
Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans
Jan. 6, 2009: Donald Crabtree receives approval from the Vassalboro Planning Board to open the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop on Route 3.
Feb. 23, 2009: Crabtree opens the shop.
June 2, 2009: Crabtree appears before the Planning Board for a pre-application meeting to discuss his proposal to extend hours of operation and add dancing and a disc jockey.
June 3, 2009: Just hours after the Planning Board meeting, the coffee shop is destroyed in an early morning fire that investigators rule as arson.
June 8, 2009: At the annual Town Meeting, Vassalboro residents overwhelmingly approve a new ordinance regulating sexually oriented business in response to the coffee shop.
July 14, 2009: The Planning Board approves a permit for Crabtree to operate the business in a new building, once it’s constructed. Meantime, Crabtree later reopens the business in a trailer on the property.
April 6, 2010: The state Fire Marshal’s Office releases the name of the man suspected of setting the coffee shop on fire: Raymond Bellavance Jr., who investigators said dated one of the coffee shop’s waitresses.
May 5, 2010: Bellavance is arrested after U.S. marshals nab him in South Carolina.
April 28, 2011: Vassalboro’s code officer notifies Crabtree that his business is violating town rules with two new signs placed on the property.
May 2011: Crabtree says he will be closing the coffee shop once the inventory is sold in the coming months.
Crabtree isn't smiling anymore.
Following a recent notice from the town's code officer that the shop was violating zoning rules by displaying new signs -- one advertised a benefit topless car wash -- Crabtree said this week that he plans to close the controversial business on Route 3 when his inventory is sold in the coming months.
"I wanted to have some fun; I wanted to see people smile," Crabtree said. "I started the topless coffee shop to do that, and it did. But now my smile's gone. I've fought that fight for more than two years now and no matter how hard I try to make this work, somebody sabotages me."
The shop, which has featured topless waitresses serving coffee, garnered national media attention when it first opened in this rural community, provoking outrage among many residents. It has prompted Vassalboro and many other communities to adopt ordinances regulating where and when sexually oriented businesses can operate.
Crabtree's original building, a former motel, burned to the ground in a June 2009 fire that investigators say was the result of arson. The man charged with the fire, Raymond Bellavance Jr., who was in a relationship with one of the waitresses, is awaiting trial.
But Crabtree, 43, said the final straw for him was the recent notice of violations from the town over large signs he set up. One advertised a benefit topless car wash, while a portable sign proclaimed, "Boobies Wanted." Crabtree said he removed the signs Thursday night, after he was given seven days by the code officer to do so or else face legal action.
Many in town will be glad to see the shop go away. At public meetings and in letters to the editor, residents of Vassalboro and surrounding communities have bemoaned not only the business, but what they view as the negative attention for the town.
The Rev. Steve Rogers of the Vassalboro Baptist Church said he's pleased the shop will close.
"I hate to see a business disappear, but ..." Rogers said, letting the word hang in the air. "That's really not the type of business Vassalboro needs. It's had an effect on the community and upset people. I think the majority of the town is going to be very pleased it's shutting down and hopefully whoever buys it will run a more family-friendly business."
Dan Feeney, Vassalboro's code officer, said he went to inspect the signs April 26 after receiving complaints. Feeney said Crabtree's signs are bigger than what's allowed under his local permit and under the adult-only business ordinance.
"It's not what's on the signs; it's the signs themselves," Feeney said Friday.
Feeney also informed Crabtree that he couldn't hold a benefit car wash on his property, nor sell lobsters there, because those activities would change the property's allowed use. Crabtree says he is a licensed wholesale lobster seller and is permitted to sell lobsters out of his truck.
Crabtree doesn't understand why he's not allowed to hold a benefit to raise money, even though he concedes a topless car wash is "probably pushing it a little bit."
Still, Crabtree feels unfairly targeted by complaints and town officials -- a contention that he's been making the last two years.
Crabtree claims that people have been spreading rumors about drug use and prostitution ever since his business opened, all of which he adamantly denies.
"These people are bound and determined to shut you down," he said. "I'm singled out, but I'm just trying to make a living like everyone else."
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