Eli's outdoor patio fails to get P&Z backing

Someone hoping to dine al fresco on an outdoor patio at Eli’s Tavern, 21 Daniel Street, will not be getting a table any time soon, if they are ever able to get one.

Following a recommendation from city trial counsel Matthew Woods, the Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z) rejected a Conn. General Statutes 8-24 referral for a request from Eli’s owner Richard Ciardiello for a lease of city-owned land, in combination with his land, to establish an outdoor patio in a location where one had previously been approved.

The vote was 8-2 with board vice chairman Edward Mead and board member John Grant opposed to the denial.

An 8-24 referral is the administrative procedure by which the P&Z reviews any use of city land before moving to the Board of Aldermen for a final decision. The meeting was not a public hearing, so there was no opportunity for public input.

In an 8-24 referral, the P&Z acts in an advisory role. Since the P&Z voted against the proposal, the matter would require a two-thirds vote of the aldermen to pass. The aldermen will discuss the matter at their Sept. 14 meeting.

In his presentation to the P&Z members, Woods explained the 8-24 referral process, saying their recommendation is purely advisory and cannot be appealed because it is not binding.

Woods said the way past applications have been handled is that the mayor submits a request to sell, lease, or purchase property. The mayor then has the city attorney prepare documents for the P&Z and aldermen to review.

“The Board of Aldermen decide if the lease is in the best interests of the city,” said Woods. “You have no lease in front of you.”

Woods said the request from Ciardiello is similar to one that was approved in 2005 by the P&Z for Richard Conine, who owned 21 Daniel Street, a nightclub in that building that he sold to Ciardiello in 2012. The stated purpose of the lease was to provide people a smoking area and also to address safety and sound concerns, said Woods. Conine never built the patio.

The P&Z and the aldermen approved the lease, which then Mayor James Richetelli signed on behalf of the city with Conine. The five-year lease for the city-owned land adjoining the nightclub and Café Atlantique was effective Oct. 19, 2005 with a $2,500 annual fee.

Woods said that in November 2009, Conine told the city he was ending the lease at the end of its 2009 term. Woods said the lease language was written to indicate it was not assignable to someone else.

“It has been 10 years. This is a new proposal. It is not in written form. There is nothing for the Planning and Zoning and the Board of Aldermen to review,” said Woods. “You cannot approve a concept. You can only approve a contract.”

Differing Views

City Planner David B. Sulkis rebutted Woods’ remarks, saying that anyone can submit an 8-24 request and said other city departments have submitted them, not just the mayor.

“This is to approve a concept for something the board already approved,” said Sulkis, saying the city approved permits for the outdoor patio in 2007, but it was never constructed. He said the P&Z board does not get to comment on the details of a lease. “It’s always the concept.”

Chairman Benjamin Gettinger asked Woods if there are any past cases in which a private citizen requested an 8-24 referral.

Woods repeated his statement in response to Gettinger’s question, saying, “I don’t think 8-24 allows you to approve a concept,” questioning how the board could recommend lease approval unless it knew the rental amount.

Following this response, Mead repeated the same question, further asking, “Who are we supposed to listen to, David Sulkis or the city attorney?”

In response, Woods said he would have to research the question. “I am not aware of any city leases that originated with the lessee. To some extent, we are putting the cart before the horse,” said Woods.

Gettinger then commented, “I’m uncomfortable with a concept. We don’t know what the concept is. I would like to see something tangible before I vote on it.”

Woods said when the board approved the plan for Eli’s in 2013, it denied without prejudice the outdoor dining patio, prompting Sulkis to interject, “That was against staff advice.”

Sulkis said the board approved the patio in 2005, and then again in 2007 when it issued permits to Conine.

“To say the patio was rejected by the board is factually incorrect,” said Sulkis.

In response, Woods said, “If there is no lease, the private property has no right to use city property. The lease does not run with the land.” He said the lease was assigned to Daniel Street LLC, was not assignable and then on Nov. 30, 2009, Daniel Street LCC sent the city attorney a letter to cancel the lease.

“The lease is doubly dead,” said Woods. “I advise you not to table it. The failure of the commission to report within 35 days, the board is deemed to have approved it.”

Woods said if the aldermen approve the request, there is nothing for Mayor Benjamin Blake to sign because nothing has been negotiated.

“We would have to come back to the Board of Aldermen for a specific lease,” said Woods. He said the P&Z members had to decide if the lease would be beneficial to the city, such as enhancing downtown or providing rental income.

Café Atlantique currently has a lease with the city and operates an outdoor seating area on the opposite side of the same city-owned space.

At the Aug. 6, 2013 meeting, Tina Roberts, owner of Café Atlantique, said she was concerned about how the restaurant’s patio might affect her business, particularly if people smoked there. Ciardiello has said the area would be non-smoking.

Woods said the city would support the request only if a majority of neighbors were in favor of Eli’s having an outdoor patio.

Ciardiello hired former house speaker James Amann to lobby the city on his behalf through Amann’s consulting firm American Resources Unlimited LLC. Following the meeting, Amann questioned why the city is not supporting the patio request.

“The mayor has said it is not political, but it is political,” said Amann. “The mayor should bring people together to settle the issue.”

Amann then played a voicemail from Trumbull First Selectman Timothy Herbst in which Herbst invited Eli’s to Trumbull and offered to guide the restaurant through the zoning process.