An upcoming court hearing will pit the owner of a would-be “speakeasy” against the Shelton Planning and Zoning Commission.
At issue — whether the commission abused its discretion in denying the application from Hush to open for business on the first floor of 303 Old Bridgeport Ave., under the former location of Hunan Pan restaurant. The hearing is set for March 7 in Milford Superior Court.
The property is next to a condominium development. A wine bar previously operated in the space.
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 public outcry arose. A liquor permit for the business in the name of Miriam Q. Sibai is still valid until April 2019, according to the Department of Consumer Protection’s website.
Sibai’s name is also listed under liquor licenses for the Keepers Gentlemen’s Club in Milford and Keystone, a club on Bridgeport’s Barnum Avenue which features exotic dancers, according to its license.
In December 2017, the commission unanimously rejected an application to open the business from its owner, Randi-Lee England.
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.”
Taking issue
The vote to reject the application was applauded by a standing-room audience of more than 40 people, many of whom were among the more than 240 who signed a petition opposing the business.
The zoners cited concerns about traffic and parking, but also said self-described “speakeasies” are prohibited in Shelton. But in legal filings appealing the commission’s decision, the business’ lawyer, Jonathan Klein, said the commission caved to public pressure about the business and used the concerns they cited as a pretext.
“It is transparently evident that the outcome of the hearing was predetermined,” Klein wrote. “The ‘fix was in.’”
In a reply brief, a lawyer representing the city said the commission followed a transparent process and acted within its discretion.
Klein said England came to the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting prepared to debate the question of whether so-called “speakeasies” should be allowed. Instead, he said, the city “blindsided and ambushed” her with questions about other issues they “had never indicated were of concern to, or would be in issue before, the PZC.”
For example, Klein said, a letter from Fire Marshal James Tortora raising parking concerns was only given to him at the beginning of the hearing, even though it was dated nearly two weeks earlier.
Klein said Tortora’s letter was “false and misleading.” He also said the concerns raised at the hearing could have been addressed, but the commission instead voted to reject the application.
England has sunk more than $100,000 into the business, Klein said.
‘Secretiveness’ prohibition
A settlement proposal from Klein was rejected by Planning & Zoning Commission members at a meeting last July.
According to meeting minutes, the commission met behind closed doors to discuss “pending litigation,” but the commission did not formally vote on a settlement proposal. Votes are not allowed to take place while in an executive session.
Klein and the Planning & Zoning Commission’s lawyer, Francis Teodosio, declined to comment on the terms of the settlement proposal. In a reply to Klein’s filing, Teodosio wrote that the commission “acted well within its authorized discretion in denying the speakeasy themed use.”
The brief cited testimony from the commission meeting emphasized the “secretive” nature of the business.
“The applicant seemed to revel in the use both being not visible from Bridgeport Avenue and being next to impossible to find without a GPS,” Teodosio wrote. “Back doors were to be camouflaged and hidden. Burlesque type variety shows involving magicians, jugglers and ventriloquists or skits were intended to be ‘discreet’ and secretive. In keeping with this theme or experience, ‘hostesses’ dressed in flapper costumes would serve the public.”
Teodosio also said the applicant’s presentation to the commission was “less than stellar,” noting a diagram wasn’t drawn to scale, and dimensions on the application conflicted without explanation.
He said the city’s zoning regulations prohibit “a new venue which mixes alcohol, theater and secretiveness.”
Though a speakeasy could “in its best light, (be) a use that probably is very enjoyable and current,” he wrote, “it is not a use currently allowed in Shelton.”
Klein ridiculed the commission’s reasoning and said “the court ought not to allow itself to be misled by the PZC’s false arguments and red herrings.”
He said the commission’s conclusion that the business would be a theater just because live performances would occur there showed “it is embarrassingly obvious that the commission had to torture the characterization of the Appellant’s small proposed café as a ‘theater’ in order to manufacture a false premise on which to base a claim that it is not compliant with the regulations.
“One can be sure (that) every other liquor-permitted establishment in the City of Shelton which hosts karaoke, live music, comedy performances, or any form of live entertainment would be shocked if it were characterized is a ‘theater’ and made to comply with the parking requirements for a ‘theater,’ ” Klein wrote. “The only theater present in this case is the PZC’s own theater of the absurd.”
ethan.fry@hearstmediact.com