Judge: P&Z’s ‘speakeasy’ actions ‘disappointing’

A building off Shelton’s Old Bridgeport Avenue where the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission rejected an application for a “speakeasy” to open on the first floor. — Ethan Fry/Hearst Connecticut Media

Shelton’s Planning & Zoning Commission might have been within its rights to reject an application from a “speakeasy” to open off Old Bridgeport Avenue.

But a judge said the commission still acted shabbily at a 2017 hearing when it denied a request for a continuance from the business’ owner to address concerns about the application.

“I’ve never seen that. Never,” Superior Court Judge Trial Referee Arthur Hiller said. “That was a little disappointing as I looked at it.”

Hiller’s remarks came at the end of an hourlong March 7 hearing in an appeal of the PZC’s rejection of a proposal from Hush, which planned to open on the first floor of 303 Old Bridgeport Ave., under the former location of Hunan Pan restaurant.

No decision has been made, and at the end of the hearing, Hiller asked lawyers representing both sides to file more briefs in the case.

The planned business has been the subject of online speculation since becoming public in October 2017. An initial description including references to “burlesque” performances riled residents who worried that Hush would be a gentlemen’s club by another name.

City officials initially signed off on the business — which allowed it to obtain a liquor license — before the public outcry.

In December 2017, the commission unanimously rejected an application to open the business from its owner, Randi-Lee England, who has been paying $2,500 a month rent for the space.

The application said the bar would operate as a speakeasy — a trend in the bar business hearkening back to the days of Prohibition in the Roaring ’20s — complete with waitresses dressed as “flapper girls.”

The judge spent most of the March 7 hearing quizzing the lawyers about the case — and wondering why the two sides haven’t compromised already. He suggested they talk more in the next few weeks.

The commission’s lawyer, Francis Teodosio, repeatedly noted the “secretiveness” of the speakeasy proposal.

“The argument is about the use,” Teodosio said, saying the proposal was a “themed theatrical presentation” masquerading as a café.

England’s lawyer, Jonathan Klein, said the PZC was getting hung up on the theme of the business, instead of the fact that the proposal is an allowable use in the property’s zoning.

“The theme is not the use,” Klein said.

Planning & Zoning Commission Chairwoman Virginia Harger attended the hearing but declined to comment afterward.

Klein said his client was open to settlement talks. The PZC had rejected a settlement proposal in the case last July.

“We’re certainly willing to explore that,” he said.

ethan.fry@hearstmediact.com