A restaurant owner who skirted local regulations this summer when he built an addition to his business is asking the municipality to bend its rules and allow the new construction to stand. Gaetano DiBenedetto, proprietor and chef of his namesake eatery at 7636 Madison, suffered an early setback Monday night when the zoning board of appeals voted to deny his request.

The village council will have the final say on the matter, and the zoning board’s 3-2 vote is strictly advisory. A date has not been set, but it’s expected that the council will hear the case in January.

In July, DiBenedetto was given approval from the village to construct a fenced-in patio behind his popular restaurant where patrons would eat outdoors. That seating area, however, morphed into a fully-enclosed addition complete with vinyl siding and windows. The footprint of what was approved and what was constructed are the same, but an enclosed structure is not supposed to come within 25 feet of the alleyway behind the restaurant, according to zoning regulations. That buffer has been cut in half, and this issue was the focus of the zoning board’s deliberation on Monday.

“Practically, there was a change, but as it relates to zoning … there is no difference,” Rosario Picone, an attorney for DiBenedetto, said to the board.

DiBenedetto has not faced any sanctions from the municipality for taking the project too far, but Village Administrator Tim Gillian said the restaurant owner is yet to seat any customers in the new dining room. Gaetano’s has not received a certificate of occupancy, said Gillian, and for several reasons.

In addition to the outstanding problem with the setback requirement, a report from Forest Park’s senior planning consultant, Jo Ellen Charlton, indicates that portions of the construction “do not comply” with building and fire safety codes. Her report does not detail the extent to which the building needs to be improved, nor does it discuss the nature of the necessary changes. The problems are severe enough, though, that Charlton advised the village not to allow the space to be occupied until those issues are corrected.

Charlton said Monday that a full assessment of the construction’s shortcomings would be completed in time for the council’s consideration of the zoning request. Charlton recommended that the zoning variance be granted.

“The physical differences between the space taken up by a beer garden and the addition (and the impacts each create) are negligible,” Charlton said in her report. “In other words, if the current structure was torn down and the previously approved structure was built in its place, many of the impacts would be the same.”

At the start of the board’s discussion, zoning board chairman Austin Zimmer opened the gates to a roving conversation by asking Picone to explain how the project changed so dramatically – and apparently without much municipal oversight. Two residents encouraged the board to reject the request, in part, because the restaurant did not adhere to local regulations. Zimmer, however, would later remind his colleagues that the only matter for them to consider is whether the 25-foot setback should be waived. Zimmer described the addition and the proposed beer garden as “pretty much identical.”

He and board member William McKenzie voted in the minority. Ray Paulin, Al Bucholtz and Richard Scafidi voted to deny the variance. Two other board members were absent from Monday’s meeting.

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