The Johnston Town Council on Monday unanimously approved a zone change and entertainment license for Strings Bar and Grill after more than an hour of occasionally contentious testimony from both sides.
The council held a show cause hearing during a special meeting on Nov. 27, during which it was revealed there was an error on the zoning form for Strings’ application for an entertainment and class BV full liquor license. Strings has operated at 183 George Waterman Road since late 2017 as a music-themed restaurant that features live performances.
According to a December report in the Sun Rise, the Zoning Board approved the application but included a note saying the entertainment license was not passed. Solicitor Dylan Conley, of the law office of William Conley Jr., noted the mistake, and the show cause for an entertainment license had been continued for a couple meetings.
“It appears what happened is that this council granted a license beyond its authority,” Conley said in November. “Effectively, what that means is that no license was granted.”
The matter came back before the council on Monday night, and both sides pleaded their case regarding the zone change and license. The alteration, which was passed 5-0, changed the area from residential to a business zone. The change allowed for the entertainment license to be passed later in the night.
“The application received unanimous approval from the Planning Board last week. I would also like to tell you that your Johnston future land use map indicates that this area should be zoned into commercial,” K. Joseph Shekarchi, who represents Strings, said. “We are being consistent with the town’s future land use map. That’s all we’re doing.”
John Petrone, the lawyer representing resident Harry Constantino, argued that it was a spot zoning issue and didn’t want to see a “nightclub” in the area. He said his goal is to protect residents like Constantino’s parents, who are both over 90 years old, and others in the surrounding neighborhood.
Petrone also said there has been “disinformation” disseminated throughout the process.
“We still feel that this is not the right establishment for this area,” he argued. “It’s going to create a nightclub, which is far and away different than what has been there for 30 years. The music still continues to play, the loudness, the vibrations, the impact on the community.”
Shekarchi fired back, saying that there has been no prejudice and “everyone knew” the matter was before planning and zoning.
He also said the issue of spot zoning would fall on Petrone to prove, including bringing in an expert to support his claim.
“It wasn’t hidden, it wasn’t false information,” Shekarchi said. “We’re not putting up Christmas trees over there. Everyone knew that Strings was over there. Everyone knows that this is the main impetus for this request. It’s not a secret to anyone in this town.”
He also noted that, despite noise complaints from the Constantinos and nearby residents, there have been no official violations logged with the Johnston Police Department.
“Numerous, numerous times, based on information received by my client and stated on the record several times, no one has refuted this, and there’s a fine Johnston police officer [Capt. Mark Vieira] here, to the best of my knowledge, there’s not been one violation,” Shekarchi said. “So if there’s a violation, a noise violation, let me hear about it.”
Harry Constantino had a reason for why there may be complaints but no violations. He said that by the time the police officers arrive on scene, the sound level may be different than what was reported.
He repeatedly said he has no issue with owners Frank and Dina Lombari and Stephanie Harris. He added that Frank has invited him to the restaurant on several occasions. He told the council that he does not care about what happens at Strings, as long as it doesn’t disturb his parents.
“I don't care what [Frank] does inside those four walls,” Constantino said. “I told him, ‘I don't care if it’s Our Lady of Grace church choir, or stock car racing.’ I don't care what happens inside those four walls. All I care about is that my parents don’t hear it. That’s all I care about. So if we can find a way to do that, we’re good here.”
Constantino continued, saying that he never wanted to put Strings out of business and wants to work toward a resolution. He suggested setting up equipment, playing music and seeing how loud it gets before it reaches his parents, as one example.
He agreed with Petrone’s assertion that the business was “uncharacteristic” for the neighborhood.
“If this is what the town wants going forward, that’s a different conversation, but in the meantime we’ve got to figure out how people can live,” Constantino said. “People can’t live next to a nightclub. You can’t raise your kids like that. [My parents] are up all night, and they haven’t complained about anything at any time in any way, shape or form.”
Other members of the public were split on the impact Strings has on the surrounding area. Jeffrey Hetu said he has noticed the odor of marijuana from cars parked outside his house.
John Pelzman, who said he has worked around music equipment for decades, told the council the decibel level wasn’t out of the ordinary.