Stonington sues bar owner over signs

Stonington has sued the owner of the Handlebar Cafe over the legality of a new, large mural on the side of business and a pair of handlebars overhanging its roof, both added as part of the filming of a television reality show.
Buy Photo Joe Wojtas/The Day Stonington has sued the owner of the Handlebar Cafe over the legality of a new, large mural on the side of business and a pair of handlebars overhanging its roof, both added as part of the filming of a television reality show.

Stonington - The town has sued the owner of the Handlebar Cafe on Route 1 because she has refused to remove an illegal mural and a large set of rooftop handlebars that were erected without permits as part of a reality show makeover.

The town, which filed the action last Thursday, is asking a judge to issue an injunction prohibiting Girlie LLC, whose principal is Elizabeth Mitchell, from keeping the illegal signs. In addition, the town is asking that Mitchell pay its attorney's fees, court costs and any damages.

Although she considers the handlebars and mural to be more like ornaments and pieces of art than signs, Mitchell said Monday that she will probably have to comply with the town's cease-and-desist order because it's "senseless" to spend money on legal fees.

"I feel there's other things the town could be spending money on instead of a harmless set of handlebars on the roof," she said. "It's not offensive to anyone. If I put a potted plant out front will I need a permit for that, too?"

Mitchell is also upset with town officials, who she says congratulated her during the filming of the "Bar Rescue" show but then cited her after the film crews left.

At a May Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, member John Prue accused the town of employing a double standard by allowing the Handlebar Cafe to put up a new sign as part of the production of the show without getting a permit. He pointed out at the time that other businesses are required to first obtain a permit.

At that May meeting, First Selectman Ed Haberek said the Handlebar was a unique situation because the point of the Spike TV show "Bar Rescue" was to surprise the public with the makeover and there were contractual requirements between the show and Mitchell regarding the secrecy of the changes.

Haberek, who became frustrated with the commission's questioning, said the town was just trying to help the television show, which brought good publicity to the town. Haberek is the town's acting director of planning and oversees the department. He appeared in the show and plays on the bar's softball team.

As part of the makeover, "Bar Rescue" painted an elaborate mural on the side of the business with the name of the bar and erected the large handlebars on an overhang over the front entrance. Both changes require a sign and building permit from the town. If the bar name is removed from the mural, it would likely no longer be considered a sign.

A team from the Spike TV show worked for five days to renovate the bar and unveiled their work at the beginning of May. The show and its host, Jon Taffer, help drinking establishments "transform themselves into vibrant profitable businesses."

The town's lawsuit states that on May 7, Zoning Enforcement Officer Candace Palmer received a complaint that the bar had illegally put up the signs without permits. On May 20, the same day the town inspected the property, Mitchell met with Town Planner Keith Brynes to discuss applying for a permit but never submitted an application.

On July 2 the town issued a notice of violation, and when the signs were not removed as of July 23, Palmer issued a cease-and-desist order to require the bar to remove the signs. That order could have been appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals within 15 days but Mitchell did not file an appeal.

Because the handlebars and mural stayed, Town Attorney Jeff Londregan filed the lawsuit.

The bar faces fines of at least $100 a day if it is found to have willfully violated zoning regulations.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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