An application from the restaurant Valbella in Old Greenwich for 24 seasonal outdoor dining seats came before the P&Z commission at their last meeting on Sept 9.
The application was a “must decide” because an extension would only take the application to Sept 18 and their next meeting in on Sept 22.
The 24 seats would be taken from the existing seating inside the dining room.
The commissioners said the decision was problematic because the restaurant has outstanding violations.
Back at their June 16 meeting, the applications was left open. No decision was made, but the applicant said they would address an outstanding sewer issue having to do with their grease trap. Specifically they need to organize a CCTV inspection and put it on DVD for the town.
Yet still, as of the Sept 9 meeting, the restaurant had not done so.
And, the Commission noted the restaurant had used a basement area for restaurant seating despite not having a permit.
At the June meeting the applicant indicated they would address all outstanding issues, but on Sept 9 but no additional material had been submitted.
The applicant was represented by Tom Heagney, who said he had not personally seen the basement and could not attest to whether there were seats there. Still, he said it would be rectified.
As for the grease trap Heagney said, “It is properly attached and plumbed. It was signed off by the plumbing inspector on July 27 of this year.” He said the restaurant was arranging to have the CCTV inspection and DVD.
Commission chair Margarita Alban said the commission had yet to receive confirmation on the grease trap.
“We have been waiting years. Literally it’s been years,” she said.
Alban noted the applicant had come in with a different attorney several years ago to apply for permission for basement seating but the approval was denied.
“So you are going to rectify something the commission never approved, and you want us to look past that and have us approve the outdoor dining? I’m struggling,” Alban said.
Mr. Heagney said the restaurant would not use the basement space for seating – that it would be maintained as storage, and they would cordon off the room on the main floor with 26 seats and swap it over for 24 outdoor seasonal seats on the patio.
“There would be no increase in the number of approved seats at any one time,” he said.
“The problem I have – and maybe the commission can noodle on this – is every time we discuss this application, someone says at a meeting, ‘Oh, I just ate downstairs there.’ We are hearing from commission members who have eaten in that space unaware it was never approved,” Ms Alban continued, adding that the previous P&Z chair Richard Maitland had described having eaten in the basement unaware it wasn’t an approved use, and a previous attorney had promised it would be closed off.
“And here it is, it’s still in use, however many years later,” she said.
“Now, we want to help restaurants,” Alban said. “We know it’s been brutal during Covid. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s business. At the same time I’d like to have the regulations observed.”
“This is a tricky place,” Alban said. “We’ve been promised many times by the applicant that they’ll close off that basement and we’ve been promised the grease trap many times. I don’t even think they have a C/O for the basement.”
Further, she said the restaurant should not even be operating without the final sign off on the grease trap.
“The client has been responsive. I realize that’s not been the case in the past,” Heagney said. “This is something that they are serious about accomplishing.”
“There is no question that they shouldn’t operate the basement until they have an approved sign off,” Mr. Fox said. “I would condition it so that staff visits the basement and makes sure the chairs are removed and it’s locked off before they issue the outdoor dining (approval),” he continued, adding that he had thought all the outstanding issues had been resolved years ago.
Mr. Fox said he would be willing to go to the restaurant himself to look at the basement, given that the Town’s zoning enforcement officer is understaffed and has a significant backlog.
“This is a must decide item, and you’ve been postponing this item all summer,” Alban said. “We opened it at the June meeting. You had three months and we’re still where we were in June. You’re still using the basement and don’t have any of the issues solved.”
“We’ve made progress,” Heagney said. “I got my client to install the new grease trap and it’s been inspected and approved.”
Heagney said all that remained was paperwork.
Commissioner Peter Lowe asked, “Mr. Heagney did you ever answer the questions about whether the basement is still being used?”
“He tried not to,” Alban said.
“I don’t believe it’s being used, but I have not been there myself,” Heagney said.
“You mean as we speak, or generally?” Lowe asked.
“I mean generally,” Heagney said.
“I was there July 7 and it was not being used,” Mr. Fox said.
“That was after Phase 2 of the reopen,” Alban said. “Victoria (commissioner Victoria Goss), at the June meeting said she’d been there recently and it was in use. And our meetings are videoed – we have a commissioner on the record saying she was in the space, not knowing, but to put it on the record it was in use in June or some time before that.”
“This gives the appearance of lip service to something, but really ignoring it,” Mr. Lowe said.
“These are annual approvals,” director Katie DeLuca said. “If they mess it up, then they don’t get approved next year. There is one restaurant on the other end of town that is a horrible violator. It’s also a high end restaurant. At least these guys are trying to do the right thing.”
“We have been dealing with violations with this restaurant that have not been resolved for as long as I’ve been on the commission,” Alban said. “The only reason I’m inclined to be positive and helpful is because of Covid. We have to help people survive. I’m struggling with it, but I feel we have a responsibility to help.”
“This is their last opportunity to make it right,” Mr. Fox said.
“There has to be some finality to it,” Heagney said. “I don’t have an issue with that.”
“You have to make this very clear to your client,” Alban said to Heagney. “We’ve knocked ourselves out, and we’re trying to be helpful because o Covid. It’s been a flaunting of regulations for far too long.”
“I realized this has dragged on for way too long,” Heagney said.
Heagney asked the commission to approve the outdoor seating with the condition that the restaurant have 30 days to settle the grease trap issue and remove seating from the basement.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the application with those conditions.
Voting were Nick Macri, Dennis Yeskey, Andy Fox, Dave Hardman and Margarita Alban.
Other P&Z coverage from Sept 9 meeting: