CAPE ELIZABETH — After a contentious public hearing that veered from dining room seats to wetland zoning, the Planning Board last week voted 6-1 to recommend increasing the maximum number of seats in restaurants in the town’s Business A District from 80 to 100.
“The number 80. There’s nothing magical about it,” board member Henry Steinberg said. “It’s an arbitrary number, anyway, so I don’t believe we’re changing the feeling or the business plan (of the district).”
The zoning amendment request was made to the Town Council last summer by Lisa Kostopoulos, owner of The Good Table restaurant on Ocean House Road. Kostopoulos was responding to a visit from the town’s code enforcement officer, who in turn had received a letter from Mary Otulakowski, former owner of neighboring Rudy’s restaurant, which alleged zoning violations at The Good Table.
During a public hearing at the May 22 Planning Board meeting, Otulakowski said her real concern was not about seating, but about a wetland ordinance that had been enforced on her property and not at her neighbor’s.
“I had to be 150 feet from that wetland, and I couldn’t do anything to my business, my restaurant,” Otulakowski said. “I couldn’t mow the lawn, I couldn’t remove invasive vines … (or) the code enforcement officer was at my door.”
She added, “It’s amazing that Rudy’s next door, 100 feet from The Good Table, had to be torn down and moved 25 feet. Now it’s no longer in the (wetland zone) … but The Good Table is in this wetland zone. So I’m wondering how the town picks and chooses what people can do and others can’t do.”
Rudy’s, now under the ownership of developer Paul Woods, is being rebuilt and is expected to re-open this summer.
“We’re not considering something having to do with wetlands tonight,” Steinberg said.
But Otulakowski found one ally on the board: Vice Chairwoman Liza Quinn, who cast the only dissenting vote, said unequal application of the law could create “hard feelings” and hurt economic development by scaring away businesses.
“We’re very vulnerable to allegations of spot zoning if we consider changing this to 100 seats for the request of one applicant who’s been violating the ordinance – just after one applicant invested, I’m guessing, over $1 million in building a new restaurant that meets the existing ordinance,” Quinn said.
The Planning Board considered doing away with the amendment last month after it was found that The Good Table had more than 100 seats. Some board members accused the restaurant of flaunting the current 80-seat ordinance. Kostopoulos then responded by reducing the number of seats to 75.
Planning Board member Carol Anne Jordan last week stressed that, regardless of how it originated, the request to consider an ordinance amendment came from the Town Council and not The Good Table or any other private establishment.
Board member Peter Curry tried to steer the conversation back to whether it was appropriate to increase the maximum number of restaurant seats in the business district. He said if a restaurant has enough parking, then it shouldn’t be an issue.
“I’m not sure we have any business talking about the interior layout of a restaurant,” he said. “The fire marshal certainly does.”
Dan Bowen, of Hunts Point Road, was one of two citizens to advocate for the zoning change during the public hearing. He said he has been a customer at The Good Table for about 20 years and has “never seen that the number of tables or chairs they have causes any kind of a problem for the neighborhood.”
The Town Council is expected to discuss the amendment at its June 9 meeting and forward it to the ordinance committee. The council could also fast-track the issue by scheduling a public hearing for its July 14 meeting.
If the amendment is ultimately adopted, any restaurant in the Business A District will have to go before the Planning Board and have its site plan approval amended in order to have 100 seats, Town Planner Maureen O’Meara said.
The Business A District includes about a dozen properties in the Two Lights Road area and several others along Shore Road near the South Portland line.