Updated 3:30 p.m. – Oct. 16, 2012
A determined campaign by neighbors –including a long-time campaign contributor and ally of Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone –derailed a request by Slainte owner Chris Fleming to build a 540 square foot beer garden behind the restaurant at 7505 Madison St. at the Village Council meeting Tuesday night.
The Village Council voted down the request without discussion, voting 4-1. Calderone and commissioners Mark Hosty, Chris Harris and Tom Mannix opposed the ordinance. Commissioner Rory Hoskins was the lone supporter. None of the commissioners gave a reason for the nay vote at the meeting.
Later, Mannix said, “I received two compelling letters from homeowners and businesses that surround the bar that asked us to vote against the ordinance.” He added that one letter was from Schauer’s Hardware owner Rich Schauer. The second was from the condo association at 7509 Madison. The association’s president is mayoral ally Amy Rita, campaign contributor and publisher of the Forest Park Post, for which the mayor pens a regular column.
“Not being a good neighbor was the overriding argument in the letters,” said Mannix. He said a letter signed by the vice president of the condo association included copies of recent police reports documenting fights and arrests at Slainte. “The letters complained about drunken behavior that was loud, rude and crude,” said Mannix.
But Fleming, who has owned the bar since 2003, said his bar produces no more unruly patrons than any other and asserts that he hires four bouncers on weekends, more security than Doc Ryan’s across the street (which has a beer garden).
Fleming also said Forest Park Police have used his video surveillance system many times to identify burglars and other suspects travelling behind the buildings on the north side of Madison Street.
“Slainte has helped detectives catch criminals because of our video. The Forest Park detectives are all great guys and we are helping [criminal suspects] get caught. They have thanked us.”
The Zoning Board of Appeals held a meeting Sept. 17 where they agreed to recommend approval of the proposal. At the meeting, the zoning board pointed out that other establishments on the street had requested, and been granted, an exchange of parking spaces for an outdoor beer garden. These include Doc Ryan’s, O’Sullivans, Murphy’s Pub, Mugsy’s and Fat Duck. At the meeting, Fleming agreed to give up his summer front sidewalk dining area in exchange for the beer garden. He also said he had put in a cement parking lot with support pilings for a fence in hopes that the ZBA recommended approval.
At the ZBA meeting, according to reports, Rita and Schauer testified that they worried that three parking places, which would be displaced by the proposed beer garden, would cause parking overflow into nearby lots.
Rita also complained about patron behavior.
“She complained [at the ZBA meeting] about vomiting,” said Fleming. “She said at the meeting that a beer garden would mean more people out there vomiting during the summer,” he said. “She complained about the smell of vomit. But that could be people from Duffy’s or Doc Ryan’s or anyone on Madison Street.”
Schauer was out of town and did not respond to an emailed request from the Review for comments. Rita did not respond to repeated calls, texts and emails.
“I scratch my head when someone buys a condo sandwiched between two bars and has a problem with the bars,” said Fleming.
“I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable in their own home, but don’t move next door to the racetrack and complain about the smell of manure.”
Mannix also complained that by including support pilings in the concrete parking lot Fleming was jumping the gun. “It’s clearly a case of trying to get forgiveness rather than permission,” he said.
But Zoning Board Interim Chair Ray Paulin – who chaired the September meeting – said that the board did not have a problem with Fleming installing the pilings. “We determined that he had a permit for that,” Paulin said.
Paulin said he was surprised when the council voted down the recommendation. “I don’t know what happened, and I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not very often that [the council votes] against the recommendation of the ZBA.”
Commissioner Harris said he received the neighbor letters in his village mailbox and they influenced his decision to vote against the proposal.
“[Slainte is] the only bar with a front opening sidewalk space that offers some of the same advantages as a beer garden,” he said. “I heard passionate pleas from neighboring residents and business owners saying this would be harmful and they provided plenty of argument that it would be.
“It is our job as village officials to protect the rights of property owners do what they wish with their property– that is protected by the Constitution,” he wrote in an email to the Review. “The only exception is unless it is harmful to your neighbors.”
Commissioner Hosty, who manages Healy’s Westside, has said he is unable to construct a beer garden because of the footprint of his corner building at 7321 Madison Street.
Fleming said Slainte and Healy’s are comparable in that they are both “Irish Pubs” and both were recently remodeled and are “clean and nice.” Fleming said he spent a significant amount of money remodeling the bar to a cut above “dive bar” conditions of other taverns on Madison.
“I believe Hosty should have abstained, but I don’t think it would have made a difference,” Fleming said.
Hosty said he had no comment.
The 7509 Madison Street building is managed by WJ Management. WJ Manager Rachel Aiyash, confirmed that intoxicated bar patrons often “trespassed on our property” and park in the condo lot. “We have problems with drunk people drinking and parking in our lot, which is the biggest lot behind the building.” She could not affirm that those patrons were necessarily from Slainte.
Commissioner Hoskins, who voted for the ordinance, said he never received the neighbor complaint letters and agreed with the staff and ZBA recommendation to allow the beer garden. “I have no idea why [Mayor] Calderone [and the other commissioners] would make things hard for a small business owner on Madison Street,” he said in an email.
Mayor Calderone, who is also the liquor commissioner, declined to comment.
Fleming said he still didn’t understand why the motion was voted down. “Whoever the influencing factor was, [he or she] is probably close to those people. With no reason given at all, you gotta scratch your head and say why? Anything that draws more patrons to Forest Park and draws more taxable revenue would be a good thing for Forest Park.”