Bridgeport councilman still trying to open liquor store
BRIDGEPORT — City Councilman Michael DeFilippo is forging ahead to try and re-open his North End liquor store three years after a judge tossed DeFilippo’s zoning variance and shut the business down.
But before zoning commission members take up DeFilippo’s latest application on Monday, they will try and salvage recent changes to the city’s liquor rules that could aid DeFilippo’s cause but are tied up in a legal challenge.
DeFilippo opened Vitro’s package store at 1044 Brooklawn Ave. in 2015. He needed a zoning variance because the site was within 1,500 feet of houses of worship and a daycare.
Vitro’s was only open a short while before a state Superior Court Judge ordered it closed. DeFilippo and his land use attorney, Charles Willinger, have spent three years trying to figure out how to put Vitro’s back in business.
DeFilippo’s quest has become a controversial one because of his political connections. He was elected a councilman last year; before that, he bartended for Democratic Town Chairman Mario Testa who owns a pizza restaurant across the street from Vitro’s.
Testa, along with current and past elected officials, supported DeFilippo when he successfully asked zoning officials for his variance. That fact was not lost on Judge Dale Radcliffe, who noted in his 2016 decision to shutter Vitro’s that “the parade of preening politicians endorsing this application may have the unintended consequences of convincing the already cynical that ‘the fix was in,’ even if the record does not conclusively establish that finding.”
DeFilippo and Willinger found new allies in Bridgeport’s economic development department. In 2017, Planning Director Lynn Haig, who has been working to upgrade various land use regulations, turned to the booze rules and proposed reducing the 1,500-foot-rule to 750 feet.
The zoning commission approved the controversial change last summer, along with new criteria for reviewing liquor-related applications that Haig has said strengthen the city’s ability to screen, approve or reject proposals, including DeFilippo’s.
Attorney Joel Green, who represents competing package store owners, appealed the changes. Which all leads to Monday’s zoning commission meeting.
Twists and turns
While Haig and the economic development office have frequently presented regulation amendments to the commission for approval, Green’s appeal claims Haig has never had that right.
So the zoning commission has submitted a proposal to itself changing Bridgeport’s rules to specifically accept applications from “the zoning administrator, director of planning or director of planning and economic development.”
Green had also challenged some of the language in the amended liquor laws. So the zoning commission has also re-submitted the new criteria passed last summer to itself, but with clarifications in case a judge sided with Green.
“These ... will moot his (Green’s) appeal,” said Russel Liskov, the municipal lawyer for Bridgeport’s zoning officials. Liskov added he did not believe Green would prevail in court, “But why risk a fight if you don’t have to have a fight?”
Then, once the zoning commission deals with those two matters on Monday, DeFilippo and Willinger are also back on the agenda, attempting to re-open Vitro’s under the new 750-foot-rule and new application process.
“You have seven areas of concern — compatibility with the (city’s) master plan, no adverse impacts on the neighborhood, no traffic hazards, no diminution of property values, that kind of thing,” Willinger said. “So we’re going to be submitting evidence showing we meet and exceed those standards and that this (1044 Brooklawn Ave.) is a perfectly appropriate location.”
Green said the zoning commission’s actions prove members recognized they had “a significant challenge” in defending his appeal. He added that he will demonstrate Monday that the tweaked regulations the commission plans to take up that night “are also defective.”
Willinger said Green is putting up a legal fight based on “picayune technical issues.”
Green said he will also be opposing the new application to re-open Vitro’s. He said it is “hard to believe” that city officials have spent “what now must be hundreds of hours of resources” on changes to liquor policies “that serve little purpose and only benefit one property owner.”