Judge overturns Shelton ‘speakeasy’ decision

A judge has overturned the Shelton Planning & Zoning Commission’s rejection of a self-described “speakeasy” off Bridgeport Avenue.
The planned business had been the subject of fervent online speculation since becoming public in October 2017. An initial description including references to “burlesque” performances riled residents who worried that it would be a gentlemen’s club by another name.
An application from the business’ owner, Randi-Lee England, said the bar, to be called “Hush,” 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.”
In court documents, the commission cited the “secretive” nature of the business to support its unanimous December 2017 rejection of a certificate of zoning compliance for it to open on the first floor of 303 Old Bridgeport Ave., under the former location of Hunan Pan restaurant.
But in a 12-page decision issued Wednesday, Judge Trial Referee Arthur Hiller said the commission’s decision wasn’t rooted in its own regulations.
“The commission has failed to identify any specific requirements contained in the regulations that directly and/or indirectly apply to the plaintiff’s proposed use of the property,” Hiller wrote.
“The commission, therefore, erred in finding that a speakeasy theme café was not a permitted use because there was not substantial evidence in the record to reach this conclusion,” the judge went on. “Accordingly, the commission’s denial of the plaintiff’s application for a certificate of zoning compliance was in error and is hereby reversed.”
The commission had based its ruling in part on a letter from the city’s fire marshal saying the business didn’t have adequate parking. But the judge said the zoners didn’t provide a formula for determining how much parking the business would need and ordered the commission to do so.
“The court is not persuaded by the commission’s argument that the fire marshal’s decision was guided by the regulations,” Hiller wrote.
It’s unclear whether the commission will seek to appeal the judge’s decision.
The commission’s lawyer, Francis Teodosio, declined to comment on the ruling Thursday, saying he needed to consult with the commission first.
Virginia Harger, chairwoman of the commission, said she was disappointed with the decision, but that the next steps remain to be seen.
“I expect the entire PZC will meet with corporation counsel to review the judge’s findings and to determine a future course of action,” she said.
Jonathan Klein, a lawyer representing England, said he was pleased with the judge’s decision.
“I’m hoping that at this point the city will be willing to work out the parking requirements and give us the certificate of zoning compliance so we can move ahead,” Klein said.
During a hearing in the case in March, England said she was paying $2,500 a month rent for the space. In court documents, she said she had sunk more than $100,000 into the business.
City officials initially signed off on the business — which allowed it to obtain a liquor license — before the public outcry.
The PZC’s 2017 rejection was applauded by a standing room only crowd, many of whom had signed a petition of more than 240 names opposing the business.
England appealed the decision in January 2018, saying the commission’s decision was arbitrary, and that the public outcry had led the commission’s members to make up their minds before hearing the evidence.
“It is transparently evident that the outcome of the hearing was predetermined,” Klein wrote. “The ‘fix was in.’ ”