Florida Keys News
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Bar stays open by 5-1 vote after emotional debate

The City Commission granted final approval Tuesday night for a downtown bar to serve alcohol despite past code violations and a zoning dispute that required owners to come before local government for a third time this year.

City staff recommended approval for Shots and Giggles, 201 Ann St., to operate as a bar -- though it has been serving drinks since November 2011 -- with 15 conditions attached that include not serving booze on the outside porch or blasting music.

But the bar debate landed in a bit of political crossfire on the dais, as two commissioners clashed and Mayor Craig Cates announced that the vote wasn't "a popularity contest" before siding with the majority.

Commissioner Teri Johnston was the lone holdout, telling the crowd that the matter at hand was fairness in government, not the bar's reported popularity as "an oasis" from Duval Street chaos, as patron Sherri Hall said for the record.

Johnston was loudly protested by Commissioner Tony Yaniz, whose words generated a crushing round of applause from the scores of bar fans gathered at Old City Hall.

Bar owners rolled the dice, saying if the city denied their application, it would close down the tiny bar that sits beside the larger Tattoos and Scars bar.

Shots and Giggles was designed for retail sales, and Jan. 17 was cited by a code enforcement officer for selling drinks without proper approval.

"We never want to go back to the well more than once, and now we are here for a third time, and it hurts and it's not right," said Owen Trepanier, representing property owner Peter Brawn. "We didn't get it right the first time."

The little bar didn't change physically, he said, it simply changed the use of its space.

The 5-1 vote came after 11 locals took turns at the microphone in the bar's defense, calling it a promising small business and lauding manager Hannia Rivera.

"You hold her future in your hands," said Ben Hennington, president of the Sunset Social Drinking Club.

Hennington spoke at the dais, saying past noise complaints from neighbors were his fault due to charity fundraisers he organized.

"We weren't raising hell, we were raising money for fellow charities," said Hennington. "I take full responsibility for that."

Rivera also spoke on the record, assuring the commission that the bar is abiding by all of the conditions necessary for the zoning approval.

"This has been a lifelong dream," she said. "I hope we have your support."

Whether the bar was running illegally is up to interpretation of Key West zoning law. Trepanier said his clients honestly believed they were serving booze on property zoned for that purpose.

Johnston announced that she had a problem with the application that had nothing to do with Rivera or the bar's loyal following.

"Can any of you imagine the number of businesses on Duval Street that would like to change the use of their area?" Johnston asked the crowd. "How many dress shops and grocery stores and T-shirt shops would like to serve beer and wine? Basically the whole town."

So Johnston proposed adding an all-or-nothing provision: Operate as a bar, but violate a single condition, and permission will be revoked, meaning Shots and Giggles goes back to its original retail use.

"Our job up here is trying to treat people equitably," Johnston said. "We have had problems and violations since this came to us as a major development plan."

Johnston put Trepanier on the spot, asking him straight up if the owners ever sold a drink knowing that the corner site, steps away from Old City Hall, hadn't been zoned for alcohol consumption.

Raising his hand as if taking an oath, Trepanier said they did not.

Commissioner Mark Rossi, who owns a Duval Street entertainment complex that includes bars, took himself off the panel to avoid any appearance of conflict.

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley moved to approve the application submitted by the bar, which is in his district.

But it was Yaniz, the newest member of the commission whose district covers much of New Town, who called Johnston's additional-conditions idea "ludicrous" and rallied behind the crowd's sentimental argument.

"At the end of the day, our job is to listen to the people," Yaniz said. "If people are anti this establishment, then where the hell are they? We've got to quit discouraging small-business owners to conduct business."

The meeting room exploded in applause and cheers from the more than 50 people who showed up and sat through two hours of city business before the "quasi-judicial" hearing over Shots and Giggles came before the commission.

"I'm not going to follow that," Commissioner Clayton Lopez said quietly, shaking his head and laughing.

That's when Cates spoke up.

"Our job here is not to judge this by a popularity contest," Cates said. "We have certain laws. I like the idea of a small little bar like that. We need to make these decisions by the law, that's why it's a quasi-judicial proceeding."

Yaniz also cited that city staff, including City Planner Don Craig, recommended approval for Shots and Giggles, along with the Planning Board, which sided with the bar 5-0 in February.

Johnston said before the vote that she had watched the video of that Planning Board meeting, at which about 70 people turned out to champion Shots and Giggles as a locals' spot that has helped clean up the corner of Greene Street.

Planning Board members, all appointed by commissioners, heard an hour of pleading from bar fans before taking their vote.

"I've met all of you before," Johnston told the crowd Tuesday night, referring to having reviewed the video. "I just want to tell you all it's not about Hannia (Rivera). She is a victim in this situation."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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