Outdoor dining is expected to be back on the menu Aug. 30 at the popular downtown restaurant, Pizzeria Molto.
The Town Plan and Zoning Commission on Tuesday night decided to again allow outdoor dining at Molto after James Walsh, Molto's lawyer, sent a letter apologizing for his client's defiance of a decision by the town's Zoning Board of Appeals last April that forbid the restaurant from expanding its outdoor dining onto a Post Road sidewalk.
In reaction, the TPZ on July 24 revoked its permission for all outdoor dining at Molto after the restaurant staff ignored warnings from town officials to take down the expanded section.
"My applicant was under the mistaken belief that they were going to be fined for their actions and did not know that an enforcement action was pending," part of Walsh's five-page letter says. "In addition to being sorry for their actions, they are also embarrassed by not being in compliance. This is something they have always tried to do in all of their other dealings with the Town of Fairfield."
Walsh's letter says Molto has lost 35 percent in revenue since the TPZ revoked its outdoor dining three weeks ago and had to reduce the number of employees working shifts by seven people -- four servers, two bus boys and a chef. "Many of these employees live in Fairfield and have had to suffer because of the loss of the patio usage," Walsh's letter says. "Further, numerous surrounding merchants have expressed that they believe they have seen a loss of business because of the lower volume of the customers at Molto."
Walsh told the commission that Al Kleban and his son, Ken Kleban, who own the Brick Walk property that Molto occupies, have had "significant conversations" with Molto's owners and that the restaurateurs now understand what the Klebans expect of them. Walsh said part of Molto's lease requires the restaurateurs to follow all of the town's rules and regulations, and they would be in default of their lease if they do not.
A Molto representative has declined to comment to the press in the past and did so again Tuesday night. According to records in the Town Clerk's Office, Molto is owned by RAC Group, which lists Nicholas A. Racanelli of Riverside, Conn., as president; Martino Racanelli of Bedford, N.Y., as treasurer; and Frank Racanelli of Pelham, N.Y., as treasurer.
Matthew Wagner, a TPZ member, wasn't impressed with Walsh's statement that Molto thought it would face only a fine for expanding its outdoor dining section beyond what was permitted by the town and didn't realize its outdoor dining section would be in danger of being revoked if it violated the ZBA ruling.
"It's highly unpersuasive for them to say they thought they were going to get a fine. That's not an excuse and it's really unpersuasive," Wagner said. "I can speed on the highway because I'm just going to get a fine? It's not an excuse.
"If everybody in town just said, `I'm going to break the rule because I'm just going to get a fine' ... it's no good for anybody," Wagner added. "It's unfair to all of the other restaurants in town that would love an extra table or two."
TPZ member Douglas Soutar said Molto's management had "stretched or evaded" town regulations in the past by putting up a sign before zoners approved it and by installing loudspeakers over the outdoor dining area. "I think they should be on notice we'll be watching their behavior in the future," Soutar said.
Gerald Alessi, a TPZ member, didn't think the commission should consider reinstating outdoor dining at Molto until next spring. "This applicant has been told three times by staff and by the town to take [the expanded section] down and bucked the system every time," he said. He said he believed Molto only responded after learning its liquor license was in jeopardy for serving patrons in an unauthorized area.
TPZ member Richard Jacobs said he would have no problem permanently revoking outdoor dining at Molto if it expanded its outdoor dining again without approval from the town's land-use boards.
Wagner, however, said he was reluctant to reject Molto's application to retsore its outdoor dining, but thought delaying it until Sept. 1 "will hopefully be a sufficient deterrent to this applicant and serve as notice to others." He later changed the date to Aug. 30.
Alessi, though, worried that delaying the opening, instead of just rejecting the application, could set a precedent. He said other restaurateurs may think they could expand their outdoor dining areas without permission and, if caught, be allowed to reopen them in a few weeks.
But Soutar said, "I think we address every situation on a case-by-case basis. I think we're sending a loud and clear message that we're serious about our regulations" with a delay to Aug. 30.
Seth Baratz, the TPZ's vice chairman, said, "If they don't comply, this is going away. It will be permanently revoked for this owner. I think that is a deterrent."
The TPZ's vote to reinstate outdoor dining at Molto effective Aug. 30 passed on a 6-1 vote, with Alessi opposed.
Earlier in the discussion, Walsh said 168 people had signed a petition in favor of returning outdoor dining at Molto and that the signatures had been gathered only over the past several days.
In April, the Zoning Board of Appeals had denied Molto's request to expand its outdoor dining area because it would encroach too much onto the sidewalk that runs along the Post Road.