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Vergennes eatery gets liquor license after patio debate

VERGENNES — After hearing almost an hour of at times emotional and contradictory testimony, Vergennes aldermen voted, 4-0, to grant The Antidote a liquor license that includes the right to serve alcohol on its small rear patio until 11 p.m.
Two neighbors of The Antidote, a city restaurant, have attended the past two council meetings to say they are upset by allegedly persistent noise from the patio at the back of the building, which lies at the intersection of School and Green streets and borders a residential neighborhood.
They handed in a 22-signature petition last month that requested no alcohol be served on the patio. On Tuesday, they requested no alcohol be served outside after 8 p.m.
“I can hear conversations. I can hear laughter,” said Short Street resident Valerie Kittredge. “I don’t want to wait until ten for peace and quiet.”
East Street resident Cindy Paquette also suggested a compromise.
“As a taxpayer … I have a right to ask the council to have the right to enjoy my property at reasonable times,” Paquette said, adding later, “I think we should be splitting the baby, I guess, to address both parties’ concerns.”
Antidote co-owner Ian Huizenga, along with his wife and business co-owner Gordana Huizenga, said 8 p.m. would not be a compromise, but rather rob the restaurant of 20 seats during profitable warm-weather months.
“In our industry, who makes a reservation at 5:30 or 6?” Huizenga said. “Shutting us down outside at eight, you are slashing 20 seats and one or two jobs over the summertime … We need this six-month push. Eight, that kills everything.”
The parties also disagreed over a report prepared by Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel for City Manager Mel Hawley that showed only two valid noise complaints from The Antidote since January 2009. Hawley said another two complaints were unfounded.
The restaurant owners, who have posted a sign on the patio asking for quiet and have reportedly cooperated with police on noise complaints, pointed to that report.
“We had four complaints over a year, and two were bogus,” Ian Huizenga said.
Kittredge and Paquette claimed they had called more often, but said their complaints were not properly logged while the department was shorthanded.
“I just want to make it clear it’s more than four complaints,” Kittredge said.
Paquette said future complaints, if properly logged, could add up to a civil case against The Antidote if aldermen did not act.
“That’s the law, and there is another route,” she said.
Alderwoman and building owner Ziggy Comeau, who abstained from voting, also spoke. She said when she bought the property in 1986 that city officials had assured her it would be treated like any other commercially zoned building.
“I asked, ‘Will I be looked at somehow different than anybody else?’” Comeau said. “They informed me I could not be discriminated against … I have rights, too, and I am sick of this.”
Planning commission member Jason Farrell said that denying the liquor permit would not stop the bar from allowing smokers or people waiting to be seated from using the patio, and thus would not resolve existing noise problems. He suggested neighbors consider discussing noise ordinances during the ongoing zoning rewrite, and that aldermen tread carefully where they might set a precedent.
“I encourage you not to impact other businesses … by addressing this noise issue through the consumption permit,” Farrell said.
Some aldermen also questioned the validity of the petition. Mayor Michael Daniels and Deputy Mayor Randy Ouellette said they had talked to several who had signed it.
“They don’t really state there was a problem,” Daniels said.
Ouellette said he had heard the same answers, and believed some had signed the petition simply to maintain “good harmony with the neighbors.”
When the public debate ended, the council vote then required unanimous consent of the eligible aldermen present. Two aldermen were home due to illnesses, and Comeau could not vote.
David Austin first moved to table the question until the full board could listen, and Christine Collette seconded it. Daniels agreed, but Ouellette sat with his arms folded and refused to go along. With the fourth vote missing, the motion to table died.
“We need to make a decision on this and be done with it,” Ouellette said.
Then Hawley pointed out the only real evidence amid the conflicting opinions consisted of Merkel’s report of two noise complaints in 16 months. To deny The Antidote a license without cause would be risky, he said.
“There’s a rule that liquor license control bodies cannot act in a capricious manner,” Hawley said. “To not renew a liquor license without due process is not defensible.”
Collette then seconded a motion by Ouellette to approve the license, but not without comment.
“I’ll second it, but we need to get accurate police reporting if we get issues,” Collette said.
Before the vote that approved the license, Hawley also noted aldermen do not have to wait for an annual renewal if problems do crop up.
“You can take action at any time you want based on information presented to you,” Hawley said. “You can drag liquor license holders in here.”
In other business, aldermen:
• Also approved a liquor license for the City Limits bar on Green Street. Merkel’s report also noted that 17 motorists arrested for drunk driving by city police since January 2009 said they had been drinking at City Limits, as had six people cited for disorderly conduct. Hawley told the bar owner that Merkel would be monitoring the establishment. “It’s not just what goes on inside your doors, but what does on outside your doors,” Hawley said.
• Heard from Hawley that longtime planning commission chairman Neil Curtis has resigned because of personal reasons. City officials credited Curtis for his professionalism and leadership, specifically during the recent lengthy and at times difficult process of creating a new city plan to replace the badly outdated previous document.
• Heard from Eric Andrus, owner of the Good Companion Bakery in Ferrisburgh, that he hopes to operate a horse-drawn vending wagon in Vergennes for several hours on Fridays and Saturdays this summer, starting in June. Andrus will return with a formal application at an upcoming meeting, but answered one possible objection on Tuesday: The one horse that will draw the wagon and stand next to the cart will wear a diaper, he said.
• Adopted a new fee schedule for using the Vergennes pool, which will be under direct city management for the first time this summer. Hawley estimated the fees would raise $31,000, up from about $28,300, of the pool’s $46,300 operating budget. Fees will rise slightly.
• Approved an application from Ferrisburgh resident Rick Loyer to operate a taxi company in Vergennes. Loyer said to start with he would be the only driver.
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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