Licensing error pits business against neighbors

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An error made by the Johnston Town Council in approving an entertainment license has left a business and its owners at odds with nearby neighbors.

At a special Town Council meeting held on November 27, a show cause hearing was held for Strings Bar and Grill located at 183 George Waterman Road. The hearing follows several appearances of the business before the council during the last year following complaints by nearby neighbors over loud music, loud customers, and parking issues, amongst others.

Dylan Conley, of the law office of William Conley Jr., served as town solicitor during the hearing. Conley said he reviewed the history of the approved licenses granted to Strings that allowed the business to operate. He found that everything was in order for the business’s application for an entertainment and class BV full liquor license.

Conley also noted that Strings’ June 2017 application contained all the appropriate department approvals from the town; however, there was an issue with the application’s zoning form. On that form, the Zoning Board approved the application by checking an appropriate box but included a short note indicating that the entertainment license portion of the business application was not approved. Apparently, that note was missed.

“What it appears to me must have happened is that when this council was reviewing both licenses it saw the checkmark for approved. It did not catch my office’s attention that there was any issue specific to the entertainment, and the motion to grant was held,” said Conley. “Unfortunately, as that note puts forward in that document, it’s not possible to have an entertainment license at that location because of the zoning.”

Conley also looked into the history of 183 George Waterman Road to see if there was a grandfathered entertainment license for the location in the past. It did not appear that there was an entertainment license at the previous restaurant or commercial operations at that location.

“It appears what happened is that this council granted a license beyond its authority,” said Conley. “Effectively, what that means is that no license was granted, so as a matter of law no entertainment license exists at this location at the present time.”

Following the approval of the business licenses granted by the council, owners Frank and Dina Lombari and Stephanie Harris opened the location in December 2017. The establishment is touted as a music-themed restaurant that features both food and drink along with live performances. Under fire regulations, the restaurant may accommodate 72 people in a fixed seat capacity, with 136 patrons allowed at a maximum capacity.

“The licensee was appropriately under the impression that they had an entertainment license because they came before this board and it was granted,” said Conley. “All the permits, payments, the physical copy of the license all went out but all of that is essentially void…it could not have occurred in the first place because this council is not legally able to grant an entertainment license there.”

Conley advised the council that, at the location and under state law, any acoustic music would be allowable as a matter of right so long as no sound is heard emanating from the walls of the building. Anything beyond that requires Strings to obtain an entertainment license, and to obtain that license the business would need to apply for a use variance or a zone change to the Zoning Board. Such a change then needs additional approval from the council.

“This licensee was appropriately operating given the fact that they did receive an entertainment license from this council,” said Conley.

The business’s liquor license, which was also up for renewal and part of the hearing, was entitled to renewal as a matter of right according to Conley, unless evidence was brought forward that the business was not fit to hold the license.

“To my knowledge, there has been no evidence specific to the licensee’s fitness to hold the license presented as to reject them, so I believe a renewal would be appropriate,” said Conley.

“Obviously, they did rely on our actions and spent a whole lot of money to get where they are today, and with December coming I’m sure they have parties booked that if I think we try to take away would probably cause some kind of restraining order, cost the town money and aggravation,” said Councilman Robert Russo.

The council then voted to continue the show cause hearing until the January council meeting to allow the business owners to appear before the Zoning Board in an attempt to obtain an entertainment license.

The council then took up the renewal of Strings’ liquor license. Neighbors and the business owners were allowed to speak out during this portion of the hearing, and at times the meeting became contentious as each side sought to get their points across.

Neighbors react

Harry Costantino and his lawyer, John Petrone, spoke on behalf of Costantino’s parents, who are over 90 years old and were unable to attend the hearing. Costantino’s parents live across the street from the Strings. They argued that there were numerous complaints against the business’s liquor license by residents abutting the property. They also provided photos to the council of crowds outside the establishment.

“Unfortunately, the way my parents have put it to me, it’s just too much for them. It’s late, they’re tired, they get woken up. Now I’m asking them to stay awake to wait for the police to file formal reports,” said Costantino. “It is more than they can handle.”

Costantino states his family has lived in the neighborhood for decades and never complained about the former businesses at the location. They feel that Strings is changing the character of the business that was typically at the establishment previously, with more of a focus on alcohol, along with changing the character of the neighborhood.

Claire Velleca and her young daughter, who attended the hearing, also live next door to the restaurant and are tenants of the Costantinos. She made the case that there were intoxicated people outside the establishment regularly at night that were keeping her family awake until past midnight.

“I woke up at one o’clock in the morning and they’re screaming and yelling and laughing,” said Vellaca to the council. “I don’t even know what to say to you guys anymore, because it’s just constant. They don’t turn down the music, they leave the door open, people are outside and my kids wake up…it’s just really frustrating.”

Councilman Russo argued with Petrone about the establishment. Russo said that he lives close by to the restaurant, jogs by it nightly, and argued that he did not believe that Strings was detrimental to the neighborhood and that the owners had been responsible when it came to their liquor license.

“It’s the wrong place for a joint like this. We’re trying to make sense out of nonsense, unless one of you can tell me how all of this is not happening,” said Costantino, referring to the complaints they were registering to the council.

“I know you’re trying to mold it as a family-oriented neighborhood, but you have a salvage yard…you’ve got karaoke 800 feet down the road,” said Russo. “I don’t see what you’re seeing.”

“What has to happen for you guys to say, ‘You know what, we’ve got a problem,’ what event, what testimony,” asked Costantino.

Conley then added that the fact that a restaurant existed at the location before means that such a license is allowed to be there as a matter of right and is grandfathered. He said a liquor license is allowed to be at that location “from now until the end of time” and that there was nothing that the council could do unless the town purchased the building. Conley then stated that the complainants could file a nuisance case against the business in Superior Court as the council did not have the authority over whether there is a nuisance between neighbors and businesses.

“[T]he threshold to revoke a BV liquor license is exceptionally high,” said Conley. “In my experience, someone needed to be stabbed and someone needed to be shot in the same place in a nine-month period in order to successfully revoke a liquor license.”

Strings owners respond

Stephanie Harris and Frank Lombari defended their establishment and refuted the claims brought against Strings. They said they serve a wide variety of clientele, including family parties and an above 40 crowd. Both claimed that their music and performers are typically acoustic and not loud.

“I want to stress the fact that we are very diligent in paying attention to what goes on in our establishment. We run a very respectful establishment, a family-oriented establishment,” said Harris. “We pay attention to what’s going on inside and what’s going on outside.”

The owners said they’ve used decibel monitoring equipment to detect noise levels and found that road noise were louder than the sounds coming from their business. They stated that police reports show that the business is in compliance when it comes to their liquor license and have met all necessary requirements needed to operate in town. Both also stated that they would approach the Zoning Board to move forward to officially obtain their entertainment license.

“We’re trying to do everything right and we’re not trying to upset anybody. We’re trying to work with everybody,” said Harris.

Following the testimony from both sides, the council unanimously approved the renewal of the liquor license, with the exception of Council President Anthony Verardo who was not present.

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