Minus rooftop patio, downtown eatery plan gets ZBA's OK
A Fairfield man's proposal to open a restaurant downtown where Las Vetas Lounge operated before moving to Unquowa Road gained approval from a town zoning board Thursday, after falling short last month in his bid to open a rooftop patio for the establishment.
The Zoning Board of Appeals, by a 5-0 vote, approved John Karageorge's request for variances to town zoning regulations so he could build a second story on a 1460 Post Road building that he bought from the estate of Julia F. McMahon for $851,000 in December 2002.
James Walsh, Karageorge's lawyer and a Fairfield selectman, said his client needs the second story for storage and office space. Walsh said restaurateurs who looked at the property thought it wasn't big enough, but Karageorge had resisted interest from national coffee and doughnut shops who liked the site as is because those shops "will increase traffic in an already-bustling Fairfield Center."
The application approved Thursday came on the heels of Karageorge's request last month to open a rooftop, open-air dining area that would have required variances to both setbacks and parking space requirements. The ZBA denied that application on a 3-2 vote (for an application to be approved, a "super majority" of four votes is needed).
"We're very pleased with the vote," Walsh said Thursday after the ZBA approved setback variances for the second story to be built. "This will be a major upgrade to what we consider one of the crown jewel properties downtown." Walsh said Karageorge has not signed a tenant for the space yet, but already has done work to the building, which included digging out a basement and installing a pumping system in the basement that will enable a tenant to put in refrigerators, piping, compressors and beverages.
Joel Z. Green, a lawyer representing a property owner next door who objected to the application, declined comment after the vote. Green represented E&F Associates, LLC, which identifies Frank D. Raviola of Fairfield Beach Road in Fairfield as its principal, according to the Secretary of the State's website. The LLC represented by Green owns a two-story office and retail building at 1474 Post Road.
During the public hearing, Green said Karageorge didn't have a "hardship," one of the legal requirements for a variance to be granted. "Basically, the applicant has not and cannot satisfy the burden of showing there is unusual hardship," Green said. "The applicant is saying, `I can't get the restaurant I want.' " Green said Karageorge's building, which housed a retail store before Las Vetas, could be leased to many different tenants without construction of a second story and that the ZBA wasn't following the law if it granted variances because the proposed second story looked nice, would be in harmony with other downtown buildings or would be leased to an upscale restaurant. "There is not hardship here by the imposition of the zoning regulations because the property can be used. As a matter of law, there can be no finding of hardship," he said.
Walsh, though, said hardship exists because downtown buildings were built before the town adopted zoning regulations and didn't meet setback requirements. "Street setback lines are non-existent downtown," he said. "The site was developed at a time when property owners built right up to the property line."
Duncan Keith, a ZBA member, asked Green how his client would be "adversely affected" by construction of the second story, and Green initially replied, "With all due respect, it really doesn't matter." After Keith persisted, Green said parking is at a premium downtown, and even though the second story would have only office and storage space, that use could change in the future. "Someone could show up and decide to buy the property. Who knows what the next user wants to use the property for?" Green said. "My client recognizes there are no assurances going forward on how the property is used." Green said the ZBA already had granted variances for Karageorge's property that allowed a restaurant with 600 square feet of patron space and an expansion of the first story. "Step by step by step, variances are granted for this property ... What's the next variance and what's the next variance after that?" Green said.
Keith also questioned Walsh, wondering how the lack of office and storage space factored into Karageorge's previous application, which called for the rooftop dining patio. "If an impediment to renting the space is the need for office and storage, how, when you came last month, was that going to be solved?" he asked.
Walsh said the earlier proposal included storage space.
In response to a question from ZBA member James Baldwin, Walsh said the second story wouldn't be used as a gathering or smoking space, and only employees or managers of the restaurant would have access to it.
Walsh said approving the variances "will provide Fairfield residents with another unique and exciting dining option" and "will benefit all merchants of downtown Fairfield." After the meeting, Walsh said several tenants in the 1474 Post Road building owned by Green's client supported Karageorge's application, including the Twisted Vine, OptiCare and an Allstate office. "Even their own tenants are signing onto this," he said.
During the hearing, Walsh cited a petition supporting Karageorge's application that was signed by 27 people, most of whom own restaurants and businesses downtown, and Patricia Ritchie, president and CEO of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce.
"Last month, Mr. Green's arguments were all about parking. We have the same use of 600 square feet of patron space," Walsh said. He said Green's client would object to anything Karageorge wanted to do because there was bad blood between them over incidents involving a snow plow and property damage.
"There's clearly discord between these clients," Walsh said. "I see no one else here objecting to this application, except for this one neighbor we have discord with."