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Easthampton City Council OKs liquor licenses, zoning ordinance change

In order to secure licenses above the city’s quota of 17, Riff’s Joint and Popcorn Noir now need endorsements from Mayor Michael A. Tautznik and state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, both of whom vowed to support them. Then it will go before the state Legislature for approval.

Both businesses have seasonal licenses that allow them to serve alcohol from April 15 to Jan. 1. Popcorn Noir is a theater and restaurant at 30-32 Cottage St. and Riff’s Joint is a restaurant in the Eastworks Building that is weeks away from opening an adjoining bar.

The Council voted six in favor, with Councilor Donald L. Cykowski abstaining and Councilor Chester A. Ogulewicz, Jr. voting against the endorsement.

Councilor Daniel C. Hagan voted to support the requests from Riff’s Joint and Popcorn Noir, but said he had concerns about how to deal with what seems to be an increased interest in above-quota licenses. He said that without a defined process, the city could be accused of being unfair if it denies an above-quota license in the future.

“I think the city should take a look — in a non-confrontational setting — at what we want to do going forward,” he said. “Because I think it’s starting to get to the point where we’re going to be hard-pressed, if anybody comes forward that wants an over-quota license, to not issue it.”

Council President Justin P. Cobb agreed, stating that he felt it was the business of the city’s Licensing Board to consider the issue.

Cykowski said he abstained from the vote because he feels the number of above-quota licenses was “getting a little out of control.” Including Wednesday’s endorsement, the council has OK’d seven such licenses in the last 12 years, though only two are in use.

Ogulewicz said he would oppose any such license request. “I think approving above-quota licenses is sending the wrong message to youth,” he said. With more licensed establishments, he said, “the chance for them to get served mistakenly increases a lot.”

Councilor Nathaniel P. Ziegler said he felt the licenses would “level the playing field with some of the neighboring communities” with more establishments.

Scibak said that legislation has been filed that seeks to eliminate the quota system, which allows communities one license for every thousand residents, and move the power to grant licenses to cities and towns.

“Personally, I think the community should be able to decide what makes sense,” he told the council. “There may well be changes coming down the pike on this.”

Zoning switch

In other business, the council unanimously approved a change to the city’s zoning ordinance that will allow people with nonconforming homes to make conforming changes to them with the approval of the building inspector.

City Planner Jessica Allan said that currently, zoning regulations requires owners of nonconforming homes wishing to make any changes to apply for a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals, which can take a month and costs about $300.

Cobb said he has received many “angry phone calls” from residents annoyed about the extra time and money they are required to spend, and Cykowski said the change is “way past due.”

The council also voted to keep one tax rate for all kinds of property in the city, as recommended by the Board of Assessors, instead of breaking precedent to adopt a rate for residential and open space that is different from that for industrial and commercial property.

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