RTM declines to veto controversial BYOB ordinance that impacts hookah lounge

Groton — The Representative Town Meeting this week opted to uphold the controversial bring-your-own-bottle ordinance that some view as targeting one business and others as a blanket precautionary measure for public safety.

Of the RTM members present at the meeting Wednesday, 13 voted to veto the ordinance, 17 voted against and two abstained. A veto needs a two-thirds vote to pass.

Addressing the lack of state regulations on BYOB establishments, the town ordinance requires such places to stop allowing the consumption of alcohol at midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. It does not restrict overall hours of operation.

The only business in Groton that will be impacted is Midnight Hookah Lounge, which is open until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 4 a.m. on weekends.

Neither the June 26 public hearing on the ordinance nor the Aug. 7 meeting in which the Groton Town Council voted unanimously in favor included discussion of how the measure came about but Councilor Rachael Franco provided an explanation at the RTM meeting.

Referring to Midnight Hookah, she said she heard a complaint about a BYOB establishment, went on a ride-along with police and asked about the place, and did research on BYOB spots.

"The lack of BYOB rules first came to my attention because of a citizen's complaint due to incidents involving law enforcement at the hookah lounge, though the BYOB ordinance is not about that one establishment," she said. "This ordinance is about the lack of regulation and oversight, safety factors and setting a standard for our community."

Records the Town of Groton Police Department provided on Tuesday in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Day detail the law enforcement incidents Franco referenced.

Between Feb. 1 and Sept. 3, police reported responding on five days for suspicious activity, four for a complaint, three for a disturbance, five for a motor vehicle stop or complaint, and one for larceny. Two-thirds of the incidents occurred during the first half of this period. All occurred after 1 a.m. except one report of suspicious activity and the larceny report.

Records show that police made arrests at Midnight Hookah, or due to activity at the lounge, on March 16, April 21, April 22 and April 29.

Stemming from an incident on March 16, New London resident Duwayne "Brooklyn" Todd was charged with first-degree criminal trespass, disorderly conduct and interfering with an emergency call. Prior to The Day's receipt of the police documents, Midnight Hookah owner Hossam "Sam" Abudawood had explained that he got a restraining order against Todd after various incidents.

The police report stated that Midnight Hookah employees had pointed out Todd to police on Feb. 11.

The other three arrests were for interfering with an officer and possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana, failure to respond to an infraction and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Each of the four arrests was conducted by a different patrol officer.

While specific incidents didn't come up at the RTM meeting, police Chief Louis Fusaro told those present that the midnight shift "responds to this location quite frequently" and that he thinks there are more responses to Midnight Hookah than to other businesses in town.

In urging the RTM to veto the ordinance, both Abudawood and employee Tim Bresnan noted there haven't been any serious incidents in four months. Abudawood said that after having some trouble in the winter, shortly after opening, he hired additional security.

"We have had an excellent relationship with the Groton Police Department and are happy to do whatever we can do to make their job easier," he said. "They and we have same goals: keeping everyone safe, and we thank them for everything they are doing for us."

But he said if the ordinance goes through, he "will probably need to close the business." He said his customers include late-night workers like Electric Boat employees, people in the Navy, casino workers and waitresses.

Passionate pleas for and against ordinance

Michael Whitehouse, the RTM's driving crusader against the ordinance, expressed concern that those who want to drink late at night would instead go to a beach or an abandoned building if they have no place to go.

"I drive all the way to Providence to go drink and smoke hookah, and all my Dominican friends do, so Sam offered finally an opportunity for us around the area to have something like that, when for years we didn't have nothing," said Richard Colon, DJ at Midnight Hookah. "I grew up around this area, and basically after we got out the bars we would go to Ocean Beach and drink."

Richard Dixon, a former town councilor and RTM member, expressed concern that the town could face a civil rights lawsuit because the ordinance appears to be targeted at one particular business.

Franco said she spoke to people at some local BYOB establishments, but Abudawood only found out about the ordinance from Whitehouse, and that was after the Town Council's public hearing.

"If it's only affecting one business, and that business owner was not notified, and that business owner has done everything that he can to cooperate with the town, with the city, with the laws, with the police, then the fact that we need to create an ordinance to solve a problem that doesn't exist is ridiculous," Dawn Bittner said.

Not including Town Council members, 10 people advocated for vetoing the ordinance and four spoke in favor of upholding it during the citizens' petitions portion of the meeting.

"I don't see that much of a problem with passing this law," Kevin Trejo said. "This affects the whole town; I don't believe this was brought up just to hurt one party. I mean, this works for restaurants and everything else."

Margie Gookins feels that all BYOB establishments should be regulated and said the police chief only has so many men to take care of places that already have liquor licenses and therefore are subject to state law.

e.moser@theday.com

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