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Liquor squabble turns tables on Davis Islands ambience

A neighborhood battle over booze apparently started after the city denied liquor sales at the Farmers Market.

By RON MATUS
Published April 28, 2004

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Patrons at the Yeoman's Road Pub enjoy the fresh air outside of the restaurant during the early afternoon on Tuesday. Because of an anonymous complaint, diners are no longer allowed to drink alcohol outside. Yeoman's was allowed to leave the tables, but cannot serve alcohol out front.

TAMPA - At least twice a week, Steve Harbison takes a break from painting and putting up dry wall to plunk his burly body down for lunch in Davis Islands' business district.

Tampa's premier outdoor eating area allows the Land O'Lakes contractor to chow down, light up and people watch - pretty much at the same time.

"Feel it," Harbison said Tuesday at the Grecian Island restaurant, raising his hands to catch a sea breeze. "Everybody likes it out here."

But starting next week, fewer people will get to enjoy it.

In what appears to be a new front in a nasty neighborhood booze battle, city officials are cracking down on four restaurants in the district following an anonymous complaint about illegal liquor sales. The problem: Patrons are drinking liquor at the popular tables outside, beyond the footprint of the restaurants' wet zoning.

The city told the restaurants last week to remove the tables by May 4 - or potentially lose their zoning. Securing new zoning is likely to take at least three months and cost each business several thousand dollars.

In the meantime, cash registers may be in for a slump.

"We're not a multimillion-dollar company," said Mike Williams, general manager of 220 East American Cuisine. "If I have to take away four tables, that's a big chunk."

The cafe controversy dovetails with two trends: the state constitutional amendment, effective since last July, than bans smoking in restaurants, and a pending push by the city to encourage more outdoor dining by reducing sidewalk setbacks, which allows more room for tables and chairs outside.

Sidewalk cafes "add to the ambience of a city" and Davis Islands offers a successful model, said City Council member Linda Saul-Sena. But Saul-Sena didn't think the restaurant flap would hurt the city's cafe-boosting efforts because, "I'm sure it's temporary."

The fate of the four restaurants is unclear.

Officials at Thai Island, Grecian Island, Yeoman's Road Pub and 220 East American Cuisine said this week they are still trying to figure out what to do next.

Timing suggests the restaurants have been ensnared in a bitter fight over a wet zoning request by the Davis Islands Farmers Market, another business on the restaurant-rich stretch of E Davis Boulevard.

On March 18, the City Council denied the market's request for a wet zoning that would allow the package sale of top-shelf liquor. The market is already zoned for beer and wine sales.

Owners Jeff and Leia Gordon collected some 300 signatures in support from neighbors and customers. They agreed not to sell liquor after 7 p.m. on weekdays or 9 p.m. on weekends, and promised to store it in another room, away from children.

But the promises weren't enough. The request was opposed by the Bayshore Little League, the Davis Islands Civic Association and other critics who said a package store would corrupt Davis Islands' Mayberry-like feel with stumbling drunks and worse.

"We don't want a Dale Mabry strip with the Mons Venus," one man told the council.

Two weeks after the zoning request was denied, someone showed up at the city administration building to complain anonymously about six Davis Islands restaurants, said Gloria Moreda, the city's zoning coordinator. The person suspected the businesses were violating their wet zonings, she said.

A subsequent city investigation found four of the six did have zoning violations. Some of them also have failed to show outdoor tables on site plans - an oversight that will also require correcting, city officials said.

Of the six, Estela's Mexican restaurant and Tate Brothers Pizza had no problems. Other restaurants on the strip that also have wet zonings, including Pipo's and Rick's Italian Cafe, were not listed.

Some business owners say the Farmers Market flap is behind their pain.

"The Farmers Market got denied their permit, and then other places got scrutiny," said Williams at 220 East. "Those are the facts."

Jeff Gordon said didn't file a complaint - and isn't responsible.

"The city is doing this . . . not me," he said.

He offered sympathy, but qualified it: "I feel for them more than I can tell you," he said. "But no more than I can feel for myself."

The affected businesses said their outdoor seats are worth a premium.

Given the 10-month-old smoking ban, customers flock to the 25 seats outside Yeoman's Road, said owner Joe Redner Jr. For some, nothing beats a Marlboro Red, a bottle of Hogarten and sweet night air.

"Most of the time you have more people outside than you do inside," Redner said.

He figured the lost seats would crimp business 20 to 30 percent.

Getting right with the city probably won't be quick - or cheap, said Mark Bentley, a Tampa lawyer who specializes in land-use law. Bentley recently spent more than a year working on a particularly tangled wet zoning case in Ybor City.

The Davis Islands restaurants will basically have to start over, he said.

Before they can get City Council approval, they'll have to pay for professional surveys, notify neighbors and probably hire lawyers. The cost: Easily, a couple of thousand dollars, he said. The Ybor case cost about $8,000.

Even then, Bentley said, public hearings will often "open the proverbial Pandora's box."

"Alcohol," he said, "is a pretty volatile thing."

- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 28, 2004, 01:05:41]


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