It only took 20 minutes -- and 30 years -- for owners of the Red Barn restaurant to win approval for a patron bar.
The Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday night granted approval to the longtime dining establishment at 290 Wilton Road to create a 12-seat bar in its "Tap Room," which will be open until 11 p.m.
In 1982, the P&Z denied a similar request after the Red Barn had opened a patron bar -- critics compared to a nightclub, known as the Wagon Wheel -- without permission. At that time, there was organized opposition from neighbors, but none expressed any objections to the new application.
"There's nobody here," noted P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens. "They've been very good. They're good neighbors."
"There's no expansion of the footprint of the building," said Pete Romano, principal of LandTech, a Westport architectural firm representing owner Frank Nistico Jr., whose family had previously owned the Arrow Restaurant in Saugatuck for around 50 years. "There's no increase in the sales. Parking doesn't change at all ... and there's clearly no change to the character of the building at all."
"The space currently is used for restaurant seating," he said, and some tables will be removed to make room, ultimately lowering projected use for dining. He said it would have a similar character to the patron bar at Tavern on Main restaurant downtown. "There'll still be seating there," he said.
"They're already serving liquor," said Commissioner Michael Krawiec, who made the motion to approve the special permit application, but asked for restrictions.
"I think it's important to put some restrictions on it," he said.
"I agree," said Commissioner Catherine Walsh. "I think it has the potential to boom."
Commissioners recognized that the opening of the new Westport Weston Family Y nearby could bring more business for the restaurant, but also indicated it was a reasonable request given that similar patron bars are fairly standard in restaurants throughout town.
Given the Red Barn is in a residential area, however, approval of what Zoning Director Laurence Bradley said was a "transformation application" was required.
"There's been a number of letters and emails from the conservation director," he said, regarding concerns about water and septic issues. "I think one of the things she suggested was some sort of monitoring of the water usage."
"This system has a history of failure," Commissioner Jack Whittle said.
Romano acknowledged that the septic system has been "problematic," but disputed Whittle's word choice. "If it was a failing system, they'd shut the system down," he said.
He contended the reduction in sit-down dining at the restaurant would lower the amount of water flow, adding that the Health Department had approved the change.
"That issue is not going to go away," Walsh said during a discussion of restrictions. The commission, however, ultimately decided it wasn't in its purview to get involved with septic issues.
"You're not Conservation," Stephens told the commission, referring to the town officials directly concerned about the issue. "You're not Health."
"The way Mr. Nistico has expressed it to me is they're not planning to be open past 11," Romano said. "The way he's explained it to me, he's 65 years old, he's not planning on having a cafe there at night ... He's just looking to tweak the business a little bit there."
He said Nistico also plans to offer some kind of bar menu. "There's no intention of putting live music in there," he said, although bands already perform at the Red Barn for functions such as weddings.