Off the Table: TPZ yanks permission for Chelsea's outdoor dining
The Town Plan and Zoning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to revoke outdoor dining at The Chelsea, a restaurant on Unquowa Place, after commission members learned the restaurant didn't have a lease with the town for the public sidewalk where tables and chairs had been set up last summer and this spring.
Bryan LeClerc, the TPZ's chairman, said First Selectman Michael Tetreau had informed him the town never entered into a lease with the restaurant for the 98 square feet of sidewalk occupied by outdoor dining. "The lease it represented it had, it never did have," LeClerc said. "It's unfortunate we have a business that does not have a lease and we approved something we probably shouldn't have because we do not have a lease."
Commission member James Kennelly said The Chelsea's owners were receiving the benefit of outdoor dining without paying the town for the space. "It's not their property to use," he said.
Matthew Wagner, a commission member, said, "It really troubles me to think we had a representation from a member of the bar that the applicant recently entered into a lease with the town of Fairfield when that was not the case."
"It can't be an oral lease or some sort of verbal agreement. It's the town, for crying out loud. It appears from our information there never was a lease," Wagner said. "The first selectman has reported to our chairman that the town never entered into a lease with the applicant in this situation."
And Seth Baratz, the commission's vice chairman, said, "I don't see that we have much choice but to revoke this."
Town Planning Director Joseph Devonshuk Jr. said the lack of a lease means The Chelsea is not only in violation of town zoning regulations but also is trespassing on town property. "The police could tell them to leave the space or we could tell them to leave the space," he said.
The Chelsea wasn't on the TPZ's agenda Tuesday night, but commission members voted unanimously to add it to the agenda just after the meeting began. The newly-added agenda item, which commission member Richard Jacobs had proposed, called for the TPZ to revoke outdoor dining previously granted to Irish Hound, LLC, which owns The Chelsea and which leases the 12 Unquowa Place building that The Chelsea occupies. The LLC lists Brotwo, LLC, as its principal on the Secretary of the State's website, and that LLC lists Kevin McHugh of Weston as its principal. McHugh is co-owner of the Gray Goose in Southport and the Spotted Horse in Westport.
The TPZ last July 24 had voted 6-1 to approve outdoor dining at The Chelsea from April 1 through Oct. 30, subject to an annual recertification, no outside music or sound system, no additional signs, and tables and chairs to be removed in the off season. On that same night, the TPZ voted to revoke outdoor dining at Molto Wine Bar on the Post Road because that restaurant had expanded its outdoor dining area beyond space the TPZ had approved and because Molto's owners failed to comply "with repeated warnings not to do so," according to minutes of that meeting. Molto later won approval from the TPZ to have its outdoor dining area restored in the originally approved space.
LeClerc said Tetreau plans to attend the TPZ's next meeting to ensure that what happened with The Chelsea doesn't happen again. "The first selectman wants to have a dialogue with us," LeClerc said, adding that one possibility is that a lease for outdoor dining on town-owned property could be subject to the TPZ first granting application for an application.
"We could then either approve it or deny it," LeClerc said. "I think it's a good check and balance so we don't have a situation where the selectmen are approving a lease we're now bound by."
Wagner said, "It could work the other way around as well."
James Walsh, the lawyer for Irish Hound, LLC, told the Fairfield Citizen on Wednesday that negotiations with the town to lease the 98-square-foot section of sidewalk used by The Chelsea had been going on since before the restaurant sought approval for the outdoor dining area from the Town Plan and Zoning Commission last July. He said the negotiations started with former Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Kennelly and then have been handled by Town Attorney Stanton Lesser after Kennelly accepted a job in the town's Human Resources Department.
Walsh said The Chelsea's owners always intended to pay rent for the sidewalk from the time the TPZ granted approval for the outdoor dining area on July 24 once a lease was in place. "It was always represented we would pay rent from the time we were approved," he said. "That has always been represented and everyone always understood that."
"We were always going to pay our rent retroactive," Walsh added.
Walsh said his client removed the outdoor seating area after the TPZ voted unanimously Tuesday night to revoke its approval, but added that he plans to file a new application for the seasonal outdoor seating area. He said he hopes to seek approval for it in June after he and the town agree to a memorandum of understanding and lease terms. He said his client would pay rent for the months of August, September and October 2012 and for March, April and May of this year.