Florida Keys News
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Latest lawsuit opens up city's old battles

MARATHON -- The latest brouhaha in town reads like a novel.

Who can sell alcohol to the public and where it can be sold are at the center of a lawsuit recently served on the city of Marathon by attorney Richard Warner, who represents the estate of Joseph Ardolino II, prior owners of Overseas Lounge and Liquor.

The lawsuit names as defendants the city and former mayor Mike Cinque and Ralph Lucignano, both of whom served together on the city's planning commission. The lawsuit, which alleges monetary harm to the Ardolino estate, claims Cinque and Lucignano conspired to reduce the value of Joseph Ardolino's Overseas Lounge and Liquor property, which the estate claims was worth more than $1 million.

The suit alleges that Cinque wanted the property, which is next to his Stuffed Pig Restaurant, at a lower price. He offered $600,000 for the property in 2007, according to various press reports. It also claims that Lucignano, who owns Marathon Liquor and Deli, wished to eliminate a liquor sales competitor.

The civil complaint demands unspecified damages in excess of $25,000 and a trial by jury.

Both Cinque and Lucignano deny the allegations, calling them frivolous and politically motivated, especially since the suit was filed right after Cinque qualified last month to run for city council in November.

Several businesses have had their existing alcohol sales grandfathered in by the city, while several others have attempted to procure new licenses. Every new attempt to secure a license generates objections from merchants with existing licenses.

For instance, when the Marathon Publix at mile marker 50 tried to obtain a license to sell liquor in 2006, in addition to beer and wine, longtime independent liquor vendors complained. The property where Publix is located is owned by Biosphere Properties, whose directors include brothers Brian and Bruce Schmitt, according to 2006 press reports.

At the time, Judy Sorenson, owner of the Brass Monkey, said competition from the nearby Publix would put her out of business. Roy and Beverley Dickens, who bought the Overseas Liquor and Lounge from the estate for $950,000, said their business would be hurt even more than when the local Walgreens started selling liquor. Walgreens is also located on property owned by the Schmitts.

Lucignano was quoted in a 2006 Keynoter article, asking, "Do we really need another package store? We're talking about keeping our town local. They're going to hurt everybody."

In October 2006, when current Vice Mayor Chris Bull served as mayor of the city council, a 1,500-foot rule pertaining to liquor sales was adopted. Ordinance 2006-25 prohibited package liquor sales within 1,500 feet of any school or existing package liquor store. Overseas Liquor is located within 1,500 feet of Stanley Switlik Elementary School.

Records show the council members voting in favor of the ordinance were Jeffrey Pinkus, Randy Mearns, Marilyn Tempest, Pete Worthington and Bull.

Bull recalls that the 1,500-foot alcohol sales ordinance was not controversial.

"We had just passed the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Regulations, and we were still establishing the heart of the city's laws," he said.

The law was later thrown out by a judge, after the city failed to notify Overseas Liquor of the proposed ordinance by mail as required.

The Ardolino suit alleges that Marathon "secretly amended" its zoning rules through this ordinance and that the change was prompted by the city's "Planning Commission, where Cinque and Lucignano sat."

The lawsuit also alleges Cinque used land belonging to Overseas Liquor without permission to run a sewer line to his Stuffed Pig Restaurant property, thereby diminishing the value of the liquor store property.

However, Cinque says the line runs on city property. He says he applied in 2005 for a permit for the sewer line, which was approved by the city in 2006. He says a utilities easement was authorized by council members Richard Keating, Don Vasil and Bull on Oct. 28, 2008.

Overseas Liquor eventually went into foreclosure, brought about by representatives of the estate, after the Dickenses defaulted on their loan. The foreclosure was finalized by a court in June 2008. The property was sold to Tim O'Connell by the Ardolino estate for $475,000 in October 2013.

Today, Overseas Liquor and Lounge is being renovated in its same footprint by O'Connell. It has 9,300 square feet of commercial space and a 5 COP Liquor License.

A real estate listing describes the property as containing 10 transferable development rights.

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