DERBY — Yes, Hops Co. owner Umberto Morale wants to make major changes to his property off Sodom and Marshall lanes.
But he insists the goal is not to pack the place with more people.
Instead, Morale said the changes will make the business more efficient, and handle some of the problems — such as overflow parking — that are giving his neighbors migraines.
“We are not expanding our operations. We’re expanding our parking,” Morale said last week. “The number of people we bring in and the traffic will not go up. The same number of people will be here.”
Morale purchased the property formerly known as Grassy Hill Lodge in 2015 and turned it into one of the state’s best bars, according to Connecticut Magazine.
It’s a trendy beer garden — a cozy yet spacious main bar building with a rustic wooden patio area. The northern part of the 4-acre property is used for outdoor weddings.
In short — it’s a nice, casual place, with great reviews from influential websites such as Yelp.
But neighbors said the success comes at the cost of their quality of life. They say patrons park on surrounding residential streets, strangling traffic. Neighbors have also complained at several public meetings about noise, litter, and wandering drunks.
One neighbor said he regrets purchasing his house near the business. Another told the Valley Indy she sold her house specifically because of The Hops Co.
Morale and his lawyer Dominick Thomas last week showed The Connecticut Post and The Valley Indy a site plan for The Hops Co. that would raze an old house on the property and replace it with parking spots; demolish buildings to the north and replace with a single, 2,680-square-foot building to be used for weddings and events.
The new building would be next to an existing patio, but a cover would be added.
In all, the plans call for about 55 additional parking spaces. About 4,400 square feet of building space — including the old house and old outdoor bathrooms — would be removed.
A new walking path is also planned, to connect the wedding/event area with the main building. That path will prevent patrons from walking along Marshall Lane to traverse the property. A landscaping buffer is planned to further isolate the property from the neighbors.
Finally, Morale repeatedly said he’s been a victim of misinformation — there is no 5,000-square-foot expansion planned for the property’s main building. That building will remain as is, Morale promised.
“There is no expansion of this building at all. That’s a big misconception,” he said said.
But Morale can’t move forward with his improvements because his property is zoned as a “pre-existing nonconforming use:” that is, it’s a grandfathered use.
Usually when something becomes grandfathered, the assumption is that the use goes away once the business ends — and the property reverts to the underlying zoning.
The Hops Co. is actually zoned for residential use, and it has single-family houses and apartments to the north, east and west — and a heavy commercial use across Sodom Lane.
The zoning makes it so that Morales can’t make any of the substantial changes.
So, Thomas, his land-use lawyer, has been trying to convince the Derby Planning and Zoning Commission to create the “Derby Development District,” a zone text change that would allow Morale to submit a detailed site plan for the commission to reject or approve.
But the neighborhood opposition has been significant — and organized.
Charles J. Willinger is a lawyer who said he represents some 20 people in the neighborhood, including the Jalowiec family, who own several neighboring properties.
Willinger has argued that the Hops Co. is a commercial use — one that simply cannot be allowed to further intrude into a residential neighborhood.
Neighbors have argued that allowing the zoning to become anything other than residential will almost certainly decrease house values — which would probably have a domino effect on other houses in east Derby.
Any positive economic development for Derby from a renovated Hops Co. property would be negated by the negative impact on the value of nearby homes, they’ve argued.
Furthermore, neighbors believe a renovated Hops Co. property will result in more patrons.
In an email, Willinger pointed out Hops still plans to use tents for outdoor events if and when the new 2,680-square-foot building is constructed.
“Hops wants to construct new building & still keep the tents. That means more business. Not good for neighbors,” Willinger said in an email.
In addition, Derby Mayor Rich Dziekan and Charles Sampson, president of the Board of Aldermen, have also come out against the “development district” currently under review by the Derby Planning and Zoning Commission.
Thomas said Willinger and some of the neighbors are intractable.
Thomas said Morale already does everything he can to police his patrons. Thomas also questioned whether litter complaints in the area have anything to do with Hops Co.
In reply to public opposition, Thomas pointed out that The Hops Co. has a petition with some 200 signatures in support of what they want to do. Those names are all Derby residents, Thomas said, including 40 in the immediate area.
“Are there instances where people park (on residential streets)?,” Thomas asked. “Yes, and people who park illegally should get tickets. Have there been instances more than in the past? Yes. So has he done nothing? No, he polices his property. He even has a shuttle service available for people,”
The land use lawyer said Derby has The Hops Co. in a catch 22. They want the successful business to address things like overflow parking — but so far they haven’t accepted a resolution to the problem.
“The complaint is about parking. We tried to expand the parking. They said we cannot expand the parking,” Thomas said.
Morale, meanwhile, said he’s happy to be running a successful business and that he wants to find a way to work with the city. The Hops Co. has raised and donated to local charities and organizations to the tune of $70,000, according to the business. It employs more than 40 people. It’s become a destination for people who might otherwise not stop in Derby, Thomas said.
“We are trying not to interfere with the life of the neighborhood,” Morale said. “Believe me, that’s not what we want to do.”