It wasn’t quite two months ago that this space was used to rip the powers that be in Forest Park for gutting their own rulebook when it comes to property development. It was then, in mid October, that we told you the story of a marvelous chef whose restaurant expansion was the stuff of regulatory legend (if such legends are told). And the response from the village, at the time, was nothing short of stunning: “No harm, no foul.”
Apparently, however, there was a foul.
On Monday evening, the zoning board weighed in on whether Gaetano’s, 7636 Madison, should be granted a variance allowing its new dining area to come within 25 feet of the public alleyway. Had the outdoor beer garden that was approved been constructed – and not a fully-enclosed building – this setback requirement would be a moot point. Typically, encroaching upon this 25-foot buffer would require special permission from the town before starting the project. Trouble is, the new dining area is already in place. The options now are to tear it down or finagle the rules a bit and let it stand.
To be clear, the type of variance being sought here is relatively minor and the municipality doles them out rather frequently. But because the building is already standing, the decision to let it remain can only be reached through an upside down and backwards process. What is most important, and most fair, is that the village took another look at what happened and realized that “no harm, no foul” was just an absurd position.
So far, the restaurant has not been able to seat any customers in its new dining area because the village is withholding an occupancy permit. In addition to the zoning problem, there are apparently a number of issues with the quality of the construction. More details on that are expected to be aired when the village council debates the matter, likely in January.
For the restaurant and the village officials, this is really an awkward situation. Gaetano DiBenedetto, the chef and owner of the business, is an extremely likeable guy who makes delicious food and could very well be successful in a bigger market. We should all be glad that he’s in Forest Park. Punishing him for breaking the rules hardly seems fair because two commissioners, Mark Hosty and Mike Curry (yes, we will continue to remind the public of this), received a pat on the head when they illegally renovated their homes. But as it stands, the addition on Gaetano’s doesn’t work as either a restaurant or as a beer garden. It has to be fixed. Any delay in seating new customers, and any expense incurred along the way, doesn’t deserve our sympathy.
In the bigger picture, Forest Park cannot continue this bizarre pattern of after-the-fact enforcement and approval. The building department needs a clearer set of standards and the community needs reliable, professional leadership.
The first step in that effort is to acknowledge past mistakes. And in retracting its “no harm, no foul” position the village has made a fair start.