il Pomod'Oro Restaurant & Pizzeria: Hold the handicapped access
I first heard about the lack of handicapped access at the new il Pomod'Oro Restaurant & Pizzeria in East Lyme from a mother whose daughter uses a wheelchair.
She told me how startled she was to see that a new restaurant, in a Boston Post Road building substantially remodeled from top to bottom, a remake that the community watched closely over a long period of time, could open without providing legal handicapped access.
Instead of a ramp or lift to accommodate the handicapped, the restaurant has posted a sign near the steep front stairs with a phone number to call for help. Evidently, the mother was told, they come out and carry you in.
The sign, in bright blue with a line sketch of a wheelchair, seems to mimic real handicapped access signage.
When I reached Petrit Marku of Waterford, the restaurant owner, I tried to explain why some people confined to a wheelchair might feel uncomfortable calling for special assistance and turning the simple act of arriving into an event.
Besides, is it even safe? I certainly wouldn't want just whoever was working in the restaurant that night carrying me up those stairs.
Does his insurance company know he is sending restaurant staff outside to carry people in wheelchairs up steep steps?
No one should feel badly about asking for help, responded Marku, who became angrier as we talked about the lack of traditional handicapped access at his restaurant. My takeaway is that he thinks the access is just fine and he has gone out of his way to accommodate the handicapped.
What shocks me most about this is not the owner's attitude but the complicity by the town.
East Lyme Chief Building Official Joseph Smith told me, when I called to ask about the lack of handicapped access at the new il Pomod'Oro, that the restaurant received a waiver from the state. I asked him to send a copy.
Indeed, Marku did obtain a waiver in 2014 from Deputy State Building Inspector Daniel Tierney, but it is very specifically limited to "an addition to the back of the existing building, non-accessible, that will function as a kitchen."
When I reviewed the full application for a waiver Marku made to the state, I discovered he didn't include any information about the extensive remodeling of the entire restaurant building, not just a kitchen addition, that also included the addition of a new wide front porch, with the front door and windows in completely different locations.
He also didn't explain that the new front porch was creating an entire new space that could be used for outdoor seating in warmer seasons.
The application for an access waiver cited only the kitchen work and estimated the project at $40,000.
"The seating capacity will remain the same just as the entry and overall public area," Marku said in the application.
Of course, the entrance, with its new deck built with stone, is completely different and was likely expensive. The interior of the restaurant also has been completely remodeled. Walls were moved and it looks like no single surface from the old restaurant remains.
When I directed Smith to the waiver, which only exempts the kitchen addition from accessibility codes, he noted that the customer bathroom was remodeled to make it handicapped accessible.
By doing the bathroom over, the building owner would have exceeded the 20 percent of total project cost needed to be spent to make the building compliant, since the cost of the kitchen addition, with its waiver, would not count, Smith said.
There would have been no money left under that threshold to build in handicap access to the exterior, he said.
When I asked the building official for the calculations showing the cost of the renovations and how much was spent on the bathroom, he suggested they are in his head, that no calculations were done. He said he just knows they would show exterior handicapped accommodations would be too expensive, above the 20 percent maximum needed to be spent.
"I've been doing this a long time," he said.
Maybe too long.
East Lyme First Selectman Mark C. Nickerson returned my phone calling, saying he was out of town on a family matter.
Marku told a reporter for The Day back in 2014, when he first announced plans for the new restaurant on Boston Post Road, that East Lyme had been very helpful granting approvals for the project. He also owns the restaurant Buon Appetito in North Stonington.
"It's the best town to work with," he said about East Lyme.
Too good, apparently.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
Editor's Note: This column has been edited to reflect that the first selectman did return a phone call.