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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    What’s Going On: Restaurants in a small town fight the powers that be

    Matt Nemeth, co-owner of The Ice Box in Brooklyn, Conn., looks out the window of his shop Jan. 23 at a lined parking spot that has been the center of dispute between the restaurant and the East Brooklyn Fire Department. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Matt Nemeth and wife Jenn, co-owners of The Ice Box restaurant in Brooklyn, Conn., show files they had compiled as of Jan. 23 to document their dispute with the Brooklyn Fire District and East Brooklyn Fire Department as well as the town. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    The entrance to the East Brooklyn Fire Department, shown here on Jan. 23, abuts the property of The Ice Box restaurant. The department painted fire lanes on the road to assert that no one should park along it, although the restaurant owners said they had no legal right to do so since it is a shared driveway. The dispute is currently the subject of a lawsuit and countersuit. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Matt Nemeth, co-owner of The Ice Box in Brooklyn, Conn., looks out the window of his shop Jan. 23 at a lined parking spot that has been the center of dispute between the restaurant and the East Brooklyn Fire Department. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Is something rotten in Brooklyn, Connecticut, a rural town just north of Plainfield?

    Matt Nemeth and his wife, Jenn, think so. Under the legal name JMN Properties LLC, they run The Ice Box and Sütő restaurants at 17 S. Main St., which have been fighting to survive for the past few years as first a fire department and then the town government, to their telling, turned against them.

    Maybe it was the fact that the Nemeths refused to sell a few acres in back of their property to the fire department next door, or maybe it was concerns over people parking at the restaurant potentially blocking firetrucks on the way out of their shared driveway.

    But they don’t think so. They think it started in January 2020 when they invited a drag queen to read children’s stories for a private Queens and Cones event.

    “That’s where it all went downhill,” Nemeth said.

    The Nemeths bought the established restaurant space at the site of a former gas station back in August 2018, opening it early the next year. Running the formerly seasonal ice cream shop had been a childhood dream for Jenn, who grew up in Brooklyn, and Matt in 2021 added a year-round restaurant called Sütő that features scratch-made fare in a contiguous space that all flowed together.

    At first, everything went well, and The Ice Box was going gangbusters. It was crowded, especially on hot summer days when everyone wanted ice cream.

    “Everyone was welcoming at first,” Nemeth said.

    Soon after their initial purchase, though, the East Brooklyn Fire Department had approached the couple about selling three of the four acres they own in a back area adjacent to the fire department.

    The couple said no, not for the low price they were offered.

    “We thought it would be valuable someday,” Nemeth said.

    The turndown didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but according to the Nemeths in February 2019, one month after The Ice Box opened, the harassment began when a firefighter they had never met before started yelling and screaming about people parking on the street allegedly blocking access to East Brooklyn firetrucks.

    A year later, the private drag queen event set off even more negative publicity.

    “We took a lot of flak for that,” Nemeth said. “In hindsight, we realized that’s not the area for that.”

    Brooklyn, he said, is a very conservative town.

    Nemeth said firefighters made a scene a week later during National Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. The place was slammed, and firefighters came into the shop yelling at customers for blocking the road, though the Nemeths said it was never actually blocked.

    A few weeks later, the fire department called Nemeth to talk about a solution to the parking impasse, but even that communication went bad as somehow firefighters reported being told to “go pound sand,” while Nemeth remembers saying to “go up the chain of command” to seek help from the town.

    “From that second, we were public enemy No. 1,” Nemeth said.

    It got particularly bad in spring 2020, when the Nemeths began renovations on their property, including a deck, and hired a surveyor to clear land out back to make the parking situation safer. In response, the East Brooklyn Fire Department erected an orange construction fence to block the exit onto their shared driveway and painted “fire lane” markings on the area.

    This led to 81 days of customers being blocked from exiting the back site, with the town unwilling to intervene. During this same period, Nemeth left his car in a disputed parking place to assert his rights to the spot, which had never been in dispute before firefighters complained.

    The Nemeths also said this began a period when customers and delivery drivers were being regularly hassled over where they were parking. The fire district first filed suit against the Nemeths in 2021, seeking to settle the right of way dispute in its favor as well as receive unspecified monetary damages.

    It claimed at the time that the Nemeths had been “parking or allowing the parking of vehicles on an area designated as a fire zone by the local fire marshal.” The suit went on to claim that the Nemeths had “created a safety issue” regarding the fire department’s use of emergency vehicles going in and out of the property.

    “They created a situation where they can say cars are parking illegally because they illegally painted in a fire lane,” Nemeth said. “It’s very clear the municipality worked with the fire department to obstruct our progress.”

    Brooklyn First Selectman Austin Tanner did not return a message Thursday seeking comment. Nick Provost, president of the Brooklyn Fire District, said he could not comment on the situation, per his attorney’s advice.

    Nemeth reports that when he complained to the first selectman at the time about the firefighters’ actions, he was told, “They think they’re right. If you fight, then you’ll lose everything. ... Just let it go.”

    But Nemeth couldn’t let it go. Assured of having the legal upper hand, he was ready to go to war. Or maybe find a compromise.

    Eventually, talks of a land swap heated up, and it appeared things were close to resolution when all of a sudden the fire department balked, the Nemeths said.

    What’s more, the town ended up revoking building permits that had been issued months before, preventing an imminent opening of Sütő. To expedite the opening and regain their permits, the Nemeths reluctantly agreed to cross-hatch over the disputed parking space.

    The fire department and Brooklyn Fire District also filed a complaint when the Nemeths sought a liquor permit for their restaurant, delaying their ability to do business once again.

    To try to counteract the power of the firefighters, the Nemeths have been going to as many public meetings as possible to tell their side of the story, making sure their comments were recorded in meeting minutes, including those of the fire district. They’ve also told their story on the local radio stations a few times, but in a virtually newspaperless town, there has been little to no press coverage.

    “Jenn and I lost three years of our lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars,“ Nemeth said. ”Who knows if we’re ever going to be able to recoup that?“

    Nemeth said the town and fire department seem intent on bankrupting his business, perhaps hoping they can acquire The Ice Box property cheaply someday. Meanwhile, the Nemeths have countersued the fire department, the district and the town, seeking hundreds of thousands to compensate for the loss of revenue they blame on fire department obstruction and lack of action by the town.

    Just last week at a town meeting, Nemeth said many supporters of his business showed up to protest the way he has been treated by the town, though the moderator refused to let them speak. He said similar attempts by residents to question the situation at Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance meetings have been ignored.

    Also last week, the fire district filed an injunction against the Nemeths that he says basically would require him to refuse service to customers or order them to move their vehicles if he sees anyone park in the “fire lane” that never existed until it was painted in.

    “They want us to be the Department of Transportation,” Nemeth said. “They should acknowledge they put the fire station in a really bad place ... with no safety studies.”

    He doesn’t know why he is being blamed for alleged illegal parking by others. In any case, the parking spots that firefighters allege are illegal have been there for quite some time, way before his restaurants arrived on the scene and easily allow passage of the East Brooklyn fire and other emergency vehicles, he said.

    “Our family has suffered. We’ve suffered tremendous brand damage,“ Nemeth said.

    But the attorney for the fire district and the fire department said both the lawsuit and the injunction would go away if the Nemeths would agree to one simple thing: Find a way to ensure that customers no longer park on the shared driveway by the side of the shop.

    “The fire department has to have the ability to get out in a manner that is safe and expeditious,” said attorney Michael Rose. “The issue could have serious effects if it goes on.”

    He said it was immaterial that the parking spots had been used for many years before the Nemeths arrived on the scene.

    A petition is currently being circulated around town that would call for a referendum to have the town absorb the fire department, which Nemeth said is not even in the geographic confines of the taxing district.

    Both Jenn and Matt had thought they could bring a level of professionalism to the restaurant scene in Brooklyn, as he had previously worked advising business owners as part of the Connecticut Small Business Development Center and she had worked as a secretary in the state’s attorney’s office. But town leaders have not proven friendly to their business, they said, which is ironic considering Brooklyn’s very conservative politics that traditionally stands as pro-business.

    “I’m exhausted. I’m tired,” Nemeth said. “Our customers want us, but the municipality itself doesn’t seem to want us.”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. Reach him at l.howard@theday.com.

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