By Tom Shevlin
NEWPORT – Despite strong objection from neighbors, the Zoning Board of Review on Monday gave unanimous approval to a proposal to install a temporary outdoor bar and patio in the parking lot adjacent to the Newport Blues Cafe.
The proposal, which required a special use permit and a parking variance, calls for the installation of up to 20 tables plus an outdoor bar, allowing for up to 100 people to congregate in the open-air space.
According to an application on file with City Hall, the patio would be located in the parking lot between the Blues Cafe and Soveirgn Bank, and would only be open when the bank is closed, and each night it would be disassembled and moved indoors at 11 p.m.
Owners Kate and James Quinn told board members that the application stemmed from an increasingly difficult economic climate.
According to James Quinn, a former longtime Newport Police officer, the last few years have proved difficult for the downtown club. In addition to the persistent economic malaise, he said that his landlord had recently raised his rent, and the business as it's currently configured is limited to evening hours.
"We have had to try to come up with different ideas to stay in business," Quinn told board members. Increasing the service area to the outside parking lot, he said, could be promising.
Neighbors, however, saw things differently, reflecting the fine line that exists between residential and commercial expectations in the city's downtown core.
Already inundated by revelers making their way up from the city's waterfront bars and nightclubs, a steady stream of abutters and residents of Historic Hill pleaded with the board to deny the application, arguing that it would negatively impact business in the area and further degrade the quality of life in one of the city's most historic neighborhoods.
While all maintained they had high regard for the Quinns, they were nonetheless just as adamant in their opposition.
James Wermuth, an abutter who has lived on Green Street for more than 25 years, was among the more outspoken critics of the plan.
To begin, Wermuth argued that he had only received notice about the application a week ago Saturday – or just 11 days from the hearing. City ordinance requires at least two weeks notice. And, he contended, "Many of the abutters didn't hear about it at all."
Accordingly, Wermuth asked for, "more time to meet with the Quinns and consider the application."
"We are a bit caught up short," he explained. The board didn't reply.
Aside from the notification, chief among Wermuth's concerns was the increased noise that he feared would result from the application's approval.
"We have had extensive experience in that neighborhood with outdoor noise," he said. "The Quinns will not be there forever. This opens the door and that terrifies the neighbors."
Already subject to "outrageous" levels of noise from the existing bars along the Thames Street corridor, Wermuth described the issue as a nuisance that's threatening an historic residential neighborhood.
However, according to Quinn, his operation has not once been cited for noise violations and they take great care in ensuring that the music played inside the cafe is not disruptive to those who live and work around it.
Still, others disagreed.
"The reason there are no noise violations at the Blues Cafe is not because there aren't violations. It's because we like the Quinns," said Wermuth.
Herbert Valkenberg, who along with his wife, Evelyn own and live in the Almondy Bed and Breakfast just above the Blues Cafe on Pelham Street.
He opposed the application on a number of levels. "As an owner and operator of an inn, I don't only have my residence to take into account," he said, "but also the guests and tourists I bring into Newport."
According to Valkenberg, he's lost business because of the noise that comes from the row of bars lining Thames Street. Adding more capacity, he suggested, could lead to more disruption to both his business and his residence.
"Anytime people sit around eat, and drink, the volume increases," he said, adding that guests have asked for refunds "based on the nature of the evening hours" in the area.
"It's a hardship on our part," he said. "We're losing business because of this and I don't want to open the door to the next club over to do this kind of thing."
Asked by Board member Marvin Abney whether he had ever called the police to report the noise problems, Valkenberg replied in the affirmative. "We call the police department every week between 11 and 1 o'clock (in the morning) and nothing has been done about it," he said.
Robert Sexton has lived at 27 Green St. for the last 30 years. Most of the windows in his house faces the the parking lot where the patio is being proposed.
He told the board, "I feel that if this outdoor dining place is approved, I'm going to have to move."
Asked by Chairwoman Rebecca McSweeney why he felt that way, he responded, "Because of the noise level is just horrible. I can hear voices in the parking lot now, particularly at night" and "the only sort of relief I have is to turn the air conditioner on high."
George Hill has also seen the neighborhood change over the course of his time in the area. Currently a resident of Prospect Hill Street, Hill described the proposal as a kind of mission creep, whereby the outdoor entertainment currently seen along the waterfront moves across America's Cup Avenue and into a residential neighborhood.
Kelly Clemens, who along with her husband Clint Clemens, restored the historic firehouse on Prospect Hill Street several years ago, agreed.
"We all live very tight together," she said. "We live cheek to jowl. This application seems like the entertainment on the waterfront is moving up the hill."
However according to attorney Rice, the Quinns had already agreed to limit the entertainment on the patio after speaking with neighbors. As she said, at this time, the Quinns were not seeking permission to allow any outdoor entertainment on the patio.
Rice also testified that her clients were happy to limit the permit to the current owners and would continue to employ an independent contractor as a sound engineer to minimize any noise emanating from the building.
"There's much more activity on the other side of the street," Rice said, adding that between the recession and rent increases, "there's a need to do this for the sake of the business."
However Stephanie Osterborg, a Franklin Street resident and business owner for the last 12 years, said that the application speaks to a larger problem in the area.
In addition to what he said was "the constant noise and loitering of people behind the Blues Cafe," there's the issue of a broader community dynamic.
Saying that the increase in rowdy behavior is having an affect on property values, Osterborg wondered what kind of message the city is sending to families – especially those with children – who might want to live in the area's historic homes.
"We just need to be able to function and sleep," she said. "We just need to be able to get a decent night's sleep at least three nights out of the week."
She continued, "Families are not going to want to move to Newport. It's pushing people like us out. And I just see it as a loss for a city that we love."
Another abutter, who described himself as a bar industry veteran, said that from 10 to 1 a.m. "there is already significant noise" emanating from the parking lot and that moving the tables and chairs into the building could cause a riot of sound after people have already turned in for the night.
Thomas Quinn, however, supported the application. "A hundred people outside for a few hours" doesn't seem to warrant the concerns expressed by the neighbors, he said, adding that the request would simply help a business stay afloat in a real tough time.
Robert Buzard, an abutter who lives at 36 Green St., disagreed.
He asked that the board to keep in mind that the patio would not only mean 100 people would be brought into the patio area, but it would also mean 100 extra people walking up residential streets late into the evening. He further noted that economic hardship is not grounds for issuing a special use permit.
Brian Cole, who owns the Burbank Rose on Memorial Boulevard, however said that he thinks the patio would be good for the are. .
"Newport's a tourist town," he said. "I think it would be a compliment to have some outdoor dining along Thames Street," adding that "putting a light on the parking lot…would improve the behavior" neighbors had complained about.
"The noise is the noise," he said. "From 11 to 2 (a.m.), it's noisy, but tourism is what we're about for three or four months."
With that, Wermuth again requested a continuance, however, chairwoman McSweeney deferred. "We've listened for quite a long time," she said, adding that the board would be open to revisiting the application in the spring in order to weigh whether the patio proved to be a problem for the neighborhood.
"This is a really tough situation," said board member Mary Joan Hoene Seiter. "While noise is a terrible problem, it's often not the responsibility or fault of the restaurant owners."
And while there may be a problem that exists in terms of noise and behavior after hours, she added, "We can't resolve the issue on the zoning board by not granting applications that are reasonable."
Fellow board member Lynne Ceglie agreed, but not without some reservation.
"I'm not sure it's a minimal variance that's being asked for," she said, adding "I'm looking forward to the spring when the Quinns come back for a review."
For her part, McSweeney said that she is well aware of the position the neighbors have found themselves in.
"I understand the problems with noise," she said. "That's nothing new…People have come to live in downtown Newport because they want the action, they want the activity."
But, she said, the Blues Cafe is not located in a residential zone. "This is a commercial zone," she said. "I don't see it is going to change (the situation) hugely, except maybe to improve the condition in that area" by improving the lighting and ensuring some degree of supervision to the parking lot. "I think we should give this a try," she said.
As for the argument that the board is setting itself up to hear similar requests from other bars in the area, she said, "There is no slippery slope as far as the zoning board is concerned."
The proposal next moves to the City Council for permission to expand the property's liquor license to the outdoor lot.