Aldermen vote against Eli’s outdoor patio

Add some stools and wine glasses, and Wednesday’s Board of Aldermen’s meeting could have been a barroom brawl over whether or not Eli’s Tavern should be allowed to lease city land to create an outdoor patio.

After hours of talking, finger pointing and some yelling, the Board of Aldermen voted down a lease agreement for a patio by a vote of 9-6. The vote was along party lines, with Democrats voting against the lease and Republicans voting for it.

The evening started out peacefully enough, with nine people standing up at a public hearing at Milford City Hall to say they supported the idea of leasing city land to Eli’s Tavern on Daniel Street for a patio, and seven stepping to the podium to say they opposed it.

Gale Uberti was one of the people who urged the aldermen to approve a lease between Eli’s owner Rich Ciardiello and the city for a piece of green open space next to Eli’s.

Uberti said, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” referring to the fact that Café Atlantique downtown already has a lease agreement with the city for its outdoor patio on the same piece of land that Eli’s was looking to use.

Others agreed, saying they thought it was a reasonable request for Eli’s, especially since the previous property owner, Rich Conine, had a lease agreement to use the space for his Daniel Street café. Conine paid for the lease, but he never built the outdoor patio that he had considered.

On the other side, residents like Tom Williams said the piece of green space is “like an oasis.”

“It’ a nice spot, a nice park, keep it that way for people who want to sit and rest and not pay,” Wiliams said.

Former Mayor Alberta Jagoe, who has spoken against the patio before, said the area is considered a September 11 memorial park because there are benches there to two residents who died during the September 11 attacks. She argued that the city should not compromise that space by establishing an outdoor bar in close proximity.

While the hearing was relatively tame, things got heated later in the evening when it was time for the aldermen to vote on whether to approve a lease.

Ciardiello bought the property from Conine in 2012 and said city department heads led him to believe that he wouldn’t have any trouble securing a lease agreement like the one Conine had before him for an outdoor patio.

But something went wrong between Ciardiello and the mayor’s office when Mayor Ben Blake told Ciardiello that he’d have to get neighbors who were in opposition on board with the plan before he’d back any kind of deal.

Blake has said it's wrong to solve one problem by creating new ones: "We must first ask for the support of the broader community, including the surrounding property and business owners," Blake said.

Ciardiello said he tried but was unable to sway some, like the Jagoes.

Alderman Frank Smith (D), who said he’s been grappling with the issue and isn’t exactly pleased with the way the process went, said he sees both sides and believes that Ciardiello had been led to believe he’d get the lease with little problem.

Smith said part of the problem lies with Ciardiello. “If it was Mr. Conine, he could have human sacrifices on the side of the building and no one would say a word,” Smith said, explaining that Conine knows how to work with the neighbors and gain their approval.

But Smith said that in the end he thinks the mayor has to lead a compromise between the parties and ultimately make the decision.

At the other end of the Board of Aldermen’s table, Republicans took issue with the way the business owner has been treated, accusing the mayor of giving Ciardiello the runaround.

“This man has been waiting a year to get this approved,” said Alderman Brian Bier (R). “He said he’s gotten the runaround, and now I see it for myself.”

Bier and other Republicans criticized the mayor for saying a month ago that Ciardiello had to go to the Planning and Zoning Board before the aldermen could discuss any type of lease. But when Ciardiello went to the P&Z the following day, he was told the P&Z couldn’t vote on any kind of agreement because he didn’t have a lease to propose.

Heated exchanges led to Blake accusing the Republicans of trying to score political points before an election, and the Republicans yelling back that it wasn’t politics. They said they wanted to know why no one told the aldermen a month ago that Ciardiello needed a lease before heading to the P&Z meeting.

City Attorney Jonathan Berchem explained that it was a unique circumstance. Ciardiello requested the P&Z review himself, rather than the city requesting it as usually happens: So Berchem said it was up to Ciardiello to know that he needed a lease to present.

Republican Anthony Giannattasio charged that the aldermen and Ciardiello “were misled.” The Republicans pointed out that Ciardiello actually had a lease proposal that he shared with the aldermen before Wednesday’s meeting, but since it wasn’t included with that night’s agenda packet, the aldermen couldn’t take it into consideration.

Former Speaker of the House James Amann got into the fray several months ago when Ciardiello hired him to lobby his case. Ciardiello said he had been considering hiring a lawyer, but hired Amann instead on the recommendation of Board of Alderman Chairman Phil Vetro, a Democrat, who suggested Ciardiello needed someone who understood the political process.

The debacle has pitted some Democrats against other Democrats. During heated discussions Wednesday, Alberta Jagoe and Amann — both big Democratic names in Milford — had words after Amann said Jagoe pointed a finger in his face and said the discord was his fault.

At one point, Mayor Blake said he was not against trying to come to an agreement with Eli’s, but he maintained that the neighbors had to be on board.

The matter can go to the aldermen again for another vote, but at the end of Wednesday’s meeting Ciardiello suggested he was so frustrated that he didn’t know what to say when reporters asked him what he planned to do next.