Shelton’s Planning and Zoning commission has rejected a proposal to open a “speakeasy” under a Chinese restaurant off Bridgeport Avenue.
The commission voted unanimously to reject the application for “Hush” after concluding the proposed use of the space wasn’t permitted in the city’s zoning regulations. They cited concerns about parking and public safety.
The decision was applauded by a standing room audience of more than 40 people who crowded a city hall meeting room for the meeting.
Jonathan Klein, a lawyer representing the applicant, Randi-Lee England, said after the vote he needed to confer with his client before deciding what to do next.
Plans for the business have attracted speculation and controversy for months since first becoming public in October.
Some residents worried that the “burlesque club” the business first described itself as would be an adult entertainment venue.
The business would occupy the first floor of 303 Bridgeport Ave., under the Hunan Pan restaurant. The property borders a condominium development.
The initial plans were rejected by Rick Schultz, the city’s zoning administrator, who reasoned the business, which also described itself as a “speakeasy,” was by definition illegal.
England filed a new application which the Planning and Zoning Commission took up Tuesday.
The meeting began with Commissioner Elaine Matto reading a letter from Fire Marshal James Tortora, who raised concerns about whether there would be adequate parking.
The commission also received a petition signed by 241 residents opposed to the application.
Klein then gave a half-hour presentation during which he tried to convince the commissioners to approve the application, or at the very least continue the matter so he could address their concerns.
He said England had invested more than $126,000 in the business already.
He said Schultz’s earlier denial was based on an outdated definition of “speakeasy,” a trend in the bar business with examples he cited in Connecticut.
“Shelton would not be alone with this kind of a place,” he said. “There’s nothing untoward about this. There’s nothing improper about this.”
The commissioners weren’t convinced.
For one, they cited discrepancies between the specifics on the application and a crude floor plan drawing submitted along with it.
“It’s totally insufficient for a professional job that’s supposed to be presented to us,” Pogoda said. “We have a standing crowd of people here waiting for this meeting. We expect to have all this information presented to us properly with all the dimensions on here. This is a drawing a kid does.”
Klein said he thought the only concern that had been raised by Schultz’s denial was whether the “speakeasy” use was permitted.
He noted Schultz and Tortora had initially signed off on England’s plans when she applied for a liquor permit in April.
Schultz said he was led to believe at the time that “it was going to be a standard cafe.”
In summing up the proposal for the commission, he said that though he didn’t think it would be an adult establishment, a self-described “speakeasy” should still be prohibited.
He noted the state liquor authorities don’t have any regulations specific to speakeasies, and advised the commission to reach out to them for further guidance.
He compared the speakeasy application to nightclubs, which are currently prohibited in Shelton.
“I believe a speakeasy rises to that level,” Schultz said.
Klein disagreed, noting that “nightclub” isn’t defined in the city’s zoning regulations.
“We’re talking about a theme here, a theme to this cafe, that’s all this is,” he said.
Schultz said his interpretation “is that a speakeasy theme establishment is not a permitted use.”
The zoners sided with Schultz, and declined a request from Klein for him to address their concerns at a subsequent meeting.
“As far as I’m concerned, the applicant came in with insufficient information,” Pogoda said.
Commissioner Jimmy Tickey cited the parking concerns contained in Tortora’s letter — that the business could contain up to 50 people, but only have 14 parking spaces.
“I think it’s a safety issue,” he said.
The commissioners — Pogoda, Tickey, Chairwoman Virginia Harger, Elaine Matto, Mark Widomski, and Charles Kelly — voted to reject the application.
Klein and Daniel Silver, another lawyer representing England, said afterward they’d have to talk with England before deciding on a course of action.
Klein said the commission had been unfair in dealing with the application, noting that Tortora’s letter was dated Dec. 6, and said he was only given a copy at Tuesday’s meeting.
“For them to have the fire marshal’s comments for 13 days and not give me the opportunity to even be aware they exist, let alone see what they are and respond to them, I think it’s fair to call that being blindsided,” he said.