Taco bar survives hostile meeting

Although a new restaurant received conditional approval to apply for a state license to serve alcoholic beverages, it did so near the end of a three-hour meeting Tuesday that was classic Bellevue Council all the way.

Among the meeting's highlights were a standing-room-only crowd whipped into a frenzy by social media posts, a council member telling them to “shut up,” a new council president who totally lost control of the meeting, the disclosure that the borough's zoning code still outlaws bars in Bellevue, and the owners of the new business actually arguing with council as it drew near a vote on the issue.

The issue was both simple and complex. Because 202 Hometown Tacos is seeking to transfer a liquor license into Bellevue that is in excess of the state mandated quota of two “R” licenses, the owners need the permission of Bellevue Council, in the form of a resolution, before the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) will consider their application. Borough officials, however, discovered that there was no procedure in place to cover such a request, and that no one had stepped up to implement a Conditional Licensing Agreement (CLA), as had been done with the first two liquor license applicants.

A CLA is an agreement between the business owners and the municipality or a community group that sets additional regulations in place to ensure that the business does not become a problem. Once an agreement is reached, it is enforced by the LCB. Bellevue Council member Grant Saylor organized a community group to execute CLAs with both the 565 Corporation and the newly-opened Revival restaurant.

There is no CLA in place for 202 Hometown Tacos, with the borough's solicitor recommending instead that council reach a “Good Neighbor Agreement,” which differs from a CLA only in that it is enforced by the borough instead of the LCB.

The resolution ultimately adopted by council makes approval of the new application contingent upon the execution of a Good Neighbor Agreement that has been approved by council.

Before that vote could occur, however, everyone was subjected to hours of bedlam.

Much of the public outcry was prompted by social media posts by now-former council president Tom Fodi, who framed the hesitancy of some council members as being anti-business and anti-alcohol. No fewer than four members of council chastised Fodi for misleading the public and creating unnecessary controversy and drama.

“We should not mistake people asking questions…as a lack of support,” said council member Val Pennington, a sentiment echoed by council member Anthony DiTullio, who told the audience that the elected officials asking questions were the ones who could make sure the borough does not have costly problems in the future.

Council member Anya Pikul told Fodi, “You have given out incorrect information and tarnished the reputation of all of council.” Pikul said that she believed Fodi cared about Bellevue, but said that as a result of his tactics, “Rather than helping the community, you're actually hurting the community.”

Council member Jodi Hause said that Fodi represented her concerns about procedure as being opposed to the business, something that she said was not true.

She touched on an issue raised by both Pennington and Tri-Boroughs Joint Planning Commission chair Michael Kurela, in which it was reported that the zoning code in place for Avalon, Bellevue and Ben Avon has never been amended to reflect the change in “dry” status for Bellevue, and specifically prohibits taverns or bars from setting up shop in Bellevue.

Pennington said that the code defines a tavern or bar as a business operated primarily for the serving of alcoholic beverages. Because 202 Hometown Tacos originally planned to close its kitchen anywhere from two to five hours before the bar closed, Pennington said that he was concerned that the business at that point became one primarily engaged in the sale of alcoholic beverages, and as such could not be issued an occupancy permit.

Pennington said that the owners had since agreed to keep the kitchen open at all times, something the owners confirmed later in the meeting.

Hause, however, pointed to the lack of attention to the zoning code as another way that Bellevue had failed to protect the public, and the borough, from legal problems in the future. She said that Mt. Lebanon had become a defendant in a lawsuit against a business because the borough had improperly issued an occupancy permit to that business.

She also said that Wilkinsburg, which gave up its “dry” status at the same time as Bellevue, adopted the attitude of taking their time, and doing things - including amending the zoning code - the right way.

“We did nothing,” Hause said. “We were deceived.”

Several council members, including new council president Tom Hrynda, DiTullio, Pikul, Hause and Linda Woshner, said that even the citizens expressing support for the liquor license said that they “wanted to have a margarita with their tacos,” not that they wanted to have tacos with their margaritas.

Although visitors to the meeting were permitted to make comments during the portion of the meeting dedicated to public comment, they continued to ask questions, make comments and argue with officials during the legislative action portion of the meeting. With Hrynda not calling them out of order, Woshner at one point told the audience to “shut up” as they interrupted her comments. Solicitor Matt Racunas later told the audience it had to remain silent during council's debate.

That did not, however, stop the owners of 202 Hometown Tacos from trying to convince council to move more quickly in implementing the CLA and Good Neighbor Agreement, and expressing frustration that council had not made the agreements a priority during the past several weeks. Hause said she had been working with the solicitor to develop an ordinance mandating future liquor license applications, and that officials needed more time to review and negotiate the terms of the agreements.

Racunas said that the borough had formally intervened in the LCB application process, which means that the LCB will not grant the license until it conducts a hearing. The borough can withdraw from that process and eliminate the need for another hearing if the agreements are executed.

The vote to approve the resolution was 6-3. In favor were Fodi, Saylor, Glenn Pritchard, Pennington, DiTullio and Pikul. Opposed were Hause, Woshner and Hrynda.