Ventnor Coffee hearing continues next month

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Supporters packed city hall for Ventnor Coffee's Zoning Board hearing Feb. 19. Supporters packed city hall for Ventnor Coffee's Zoning Board hearing Feb. 19. VENTNOR ¬– Zoning Board officials will take the next month to acquire information from the owners of Ventnor Coffee to help them decide if offering live music is ancillary to the 6-month-old coffee shop’s main business.

Zoning Officer Jimmie Agnesino gave Ventnor Coffee owners Christine Pagano and Michael Einwechter verbal notice that they cannot provide music at their coffee shop, because he said it is not a permitted use in the Commercial Zone along Dorset Avenue. Through their attorney Brian J. Callaghan of Callaghan Thompson & Thompson, P.A., the couple requested the meeting for an interpretation of the city’s ordinance defining a coffee shop business.

Under the city’s land use laws and its mercantile license, Ventnor Coffee is classified as a retail outlet. A tea house, which is the next closest definition to a coffee shop, is also an allowable use in the commercial zone. There is no reference in the ordinance regarding music as an ancillary service, but it is allowed in the more restrictive Commercial/Mixed Use Zone across the canal, Callaghan said.

Callaghan also said there is no differentiation in the ordinance between live music and piped in music.

Before the hearing began, Zoning Board Chairwoman Lorraine Sallata said there would be no opportunity for public comment.

Callaghan called two witnesses, Lance Landgraf Jr. of Ventnor, the principal planner at of Marathon Engineering and Environmental Services, Inc., who testified that offering music “is a perfectly acceptable accessory use” for the shop, and Ed Hitzel, a restaurant magazine publisher and critic, who interviewed 10 coffee shop owners to develop a definition of a coffee shop. All of them provide music, art and poetry readings, he said.

Hitzel received a round of applause from approximately 150 of the couple’s supporters who attended the meeting when he said coffee shops a “safe haven” for teenagers.

“I’d much rather see kids these kids in a coffee house, safe in some town that supports them, than on a street corner somewhere or getting into trouble doing drugs,” Hitzel said.

Callaghan said that since Jan. 1, the coffee shop was open a total of 648 hours and provided music only 80 hours, or 12-percent of the time, proving that it is an ancillary use.

Craig Hurless of Polistina and Associates, who serves as the zoning board’s professional planner, said past Master Plan reviews recommended that the city clarify its zoning ordinances to be more specific about uses in commercial zones, but it has never been done. Accessory uses can be permitted as long as they do not create a situation that is detrimental to the welfare of the community, he said.

Zoning board attorney John Rosenberger said that even if the board agreed to accept Ventnor Coffee’s definition of a coffee house, the city would still have “police power” control over its operation, including enforcing noise ordinances and occupancy codes.

The zoning board held off on voting on the request until it can gather more information from Ventnor Coffee regarding hours of operation, size of bands allowed to play there, amplified sound and financial issues, including cover charges, which would make music a primary concert venue, Rosenberger said.

Callaghan said his clients were agreeable to coming back in a month and providing Rosenberger with some answers to the board’s operational questions.

However, he requested, and the board agreed not to take any further action to prevent Ventnor Coffee from continuing to operate as it has since it opened in August last year.

The next zoning board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. March 19, but due to construction at city hall, the meeting will be held at the Ventnor Educational Community Complex.

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