Zoning change to bring more bars to town opposed by restaurateurs
A wide-reaching zoning amendment aimed at improving the vibrancy of Westport's dining scene has encountered opposition from restaurateurs concerned with the possible elimination of a rule that prevents sit-down bars from being within 1,500 feet of each other.
"You may as well say goodbye to those [existing] restaurants, because at the end of the day with the current lease structure they have negotiated, they will no longer be in business," Bob O'Mahony, co-owner of Viva Zapata, said at Thursday's Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on the proposal.
O'Mahony said that restaurateurs pay a premium for spaces where a bar is permitted. Since the leases are often long term, he said existing businesses that paid for the privilege of having a bar will be at a competitive disadvantage with new restaurants that have bars.
"I know what you're trying to do. I think it's a great idea to revitalize Westport ... but I think you'll do the exact opposite of what you're trying to do," said Kevin Burns, the owner of the River House Tavern.
Burns, who has owned the restaurant for seven years, said he recently renegotiated a long-term lease, and while the rate was favorable, if the amendment passes then he'd "look like a sucker." He said that there might be some short-term success for the area with an influx of new businesses, it would likely not last for long.
"It's an incredibly difficult business. Most [restaurants] fail," he said. "You'll have twice the failures and pull us out of business in the process."
A number of local restaurants with patron bars are closer to each than 1,500 feet, but they were in business before the restriction was imposed and were "grandfathered" in.
Scaling back the 1,500-foot restriction between restaurants with bars is one of the P&Z plans to potentially reinvigorate Westport, particularly the downtown area. A vote on the amendment is expected in July.
"Very few people were aware of this and I think it should be tabled until all the landlords, the local owners and people in the surrounding community are made aware of this," said Steve Carpentieri, owner of Dunville's Restaurant.
Fairfield has a similar 1,500-foot restriction, but exceptions are regularly made, according to P&Z Director Laurence Bradley. Greenwich also has the restriction, but it does not apply to that town's downtown area, while Norwalk, Darien and New Canaan have no such restraints.
"The idea is that by allowing more restaurants and more activities, it will benefit the town overall," Bradley said.
While restaurateurs conveyed their worries about what the regulations could do to their long-term rents, Eugene Girden, a landlord who owns property around the Saugatuck train station, believes the amendment is needed because he feels that Westport's commercial scene is on life support.
"Westport is not doing well. Westport is lagging," he said. "All of the business that we're talking about is going to Fairfield, South Norwalk, other places and not Westport."
He added, "We've got to inject some live into Westport. It's really dying. I love the place, but I don't want to live in a bucolic farmland."
Last week's hearing was a continuance of one held May 20. At that hearing, Police Chief Al Fiore said he was opposed to eliminating the 1,500-foot rule. As a young patrol officer in the 1970s and '80s, he remembered going from call to call on alcohol-related incidents late at night.
Tom Sargeant, a lawyer who has represented restaurant owners, said that times have changed, as has the drinking age, so more bars would not be as problematic as they may have been in the past. He also said there is interest from three restaurateurs hoping to open in Westport.
"Each and every one of them is on the fence because of the issue with the patron bars," he said.