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Mystic - Kitchen Little has been an institution here for more than three decades, each year drawing thousands of diners who have read rave reviews about its food in Gourmet, Yankee and Food Network magazines.
Last year, those patrons followed the restaurant from its previous location along busy Route 27 to its new one at the Mystic River Marina. To get there, they must drive along narrow and twisting Old North and Quarry roads, residential streets on Masons Island that are lined with homes.
The increased traffic has angered many of those residents, who say that not only is Kitchen Little causing a safety hazard but that the Town of Stonington never made Kitchen Little obtain the special-use permit required of owners of a new business that expands an operation. In addition, they have pointed out the restaurant has violated the limits of its seasonal permit by operating year-round.
The neighbors have an ally in Zoning Officer Joe Larkin, who has argued that the town erred in not requiring the special-use permit which required a public hearing as well as in a finding by the Planning and Zoning Commission that a proposed use does not endanger the public health and safety or damage the character of a neighborhood. In 2010, the commission denied a request for a liquor permit from the previous restaurant on the property, citing those reasons.
But Town Planner Keith Brynes has said he does not feel Kitchen Little has expanded the business, even though it is operating year-round and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, something the previous restaurant on the property, the Blue Door, did not do.
Instead, Brynes said expansion refers to a physical expansion such as increasing the number of seats or square footage. Kitchen Little is limited to 56 seats, but the seasonal permit states 66 are allowed.
When neighbors complained to the Board of Selectmen last week, First Selectman Ed Haberek, who is also serving as the director of planning, said Town Attorney Thomas Londregan is reviewing their complaints. Once that is completed in a few weeks, the Planning and Zoning Commission will review the issue.
In addition, he said he would alert Police Chief J. Darren Stewart and the Board of Police Commissioners about allegations of speeding and reckless driving on the two streets.
Longtime Kitchen Little owner Flo Klewin said Friday she understands her restaurant may be attracting a little more traffic than previous restaurants on the property but that there has been a marina and restaurants there for many years.
She added she's just trying to make a living.
"I want the neighbors to be happy. I don't want to create waves. But I don't want to be put out of business because I'm successful. That's not fair," she said.
At the selectmen's meeting, Old North Road resident Michael Wall outlined the zoning history of the property culminating with Larkin's recent 22-page report, which researched the legality of the Kitchen Little operation. Recently, Klewin was cited for having an illegal handwritten sign advertising the restaurant at the intersection of Route 1 and Masons Island Road.
Like Larkin, Wall pointed to a provision in the zoning regulations which state "A new Special Use Permit shall be required if a change in ownership or business name will reasonably result in an expansion of use. Expansion of use may include, but not be limited to, any increase in number of seats, any increase in the area devoted to food processing, any expansion of kitchen facilities or equipment, or any increase in square footage of the establishment."
While neighbors also pointed to the section about new equipment which is also mentioned in Klewin's lease, she said she has only replaced a broken dishwasher and a refrigerator.
Wall, who has filed two zoning complaints about the restaurant, also told selectmen that because the two streets are as narrow as 18 to 20 feet, two cars have difficulty passing each other while going in opposite directions. He said many residents walk and jog on the roads while drivers often exceed the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit by large margins.
He said the restaurant has created thousands of new cars a year going down the two streets.
"This is a huge danger to us that needs to be addressed," he said. "A full-blown tourist icon has been dropped on the end of our residential road."
Quarry Road resident Faith Leitner told selectmen that Kitchen Little has changed the neighborhood considerably.
She said there are no lights or sidewalks along the roads and that there is a great deal of wildlife and a large number of older residents.
"I'd hate to see someone get hurt before action is taken," she said.
Wall warned selectmen the town could face liability if someone gets hurt on the road and an attorney finds the town allowed Kitchen Little to operate in violation of zoning regulations.
Klewin suggested the town lower the speed limit to 15 miles per hour. As for operating outside of her seasonal permit, Klewin said she was unclear about its limitations and that the exact dates "depend on how you interpret it." She added no town officials said anything about it to her all winter.
The restaurant's application for its 2102 seasonal permit stated it would operate between April 1 and Oct. 1.
Because she said her menu requires skilled employees, she said she did not want to close this winter and lay them off because she feared they would not come back when she reopened in the spring.
"We weren't busy during the winter. But we wanted to keep people working. We made just enough to break even," she said.
Wall, who said neighbors may have to look into legal options if the town does not take action against Kitchen Little, said he did not dislike Klewin or her restaurant.
"But a big tourist business doesn't belong in this neighborhood," he said.