OLD TOWN — After months of battle, one more obstacle was removed in Antonias and Claudia Demoulas’ quest to reopen their Stillwater cafe.
At a tense Old Town Planning Board meeting Monday night, a proposal to reconstruct the Market Cafe site to meet city traffic and drainage codes was approved unanimously. The former restaurant, which sits next to congested Stillwater Avenue and within a residential zone, will have to undergo extensive reconstruction to meet commercial codes.
The Demoulases were thrilled, but still uncertain if their eatery, which was shut down last March for operating in a residential zone, will once again operate as a restaurant.
“I see a light at the end of the tunnel, maybe,” said Antonias Demoulas. But, referring to the cafe’s ongoing litigation, he said, “We have still a long way to go, a long way.”
Surry Institute traffic engineer Mike Waugh, representing the Demoulases, presented a proposal for a safe treatment of traffic and parking on the Market Cafe lot.
Under Waugh’s proposal, Market Cafe would be surrounded by a one-way drive-around — automobiles would enter on Free Street and exit on Stillwater. Fourteen parking spaces would be available for patrons.
Waugh said that the lot as he designed it is “normally considered to be a safe situation.”
With little debate, the board concurred.
“Traffic congestion will not be unreasonably created if the proposed parking lot is accepted,” said Ted Shina, planning board chairman.
Not everyone was pleased by the board’s decision, however. Gary Karam Jr., owner of the lot next to Market Cafe on Free Street, expressed concern that the fill needed for the parking lot entrance might encroach on his property. One corner of the cafe is only 12 feet from his property line, he said. Karam suggested that a retaining wall be stipulated.
Despite approval of the proposed site, not all planning board members approved of the Demoulases’ methods.
“It’s like making a round peg fit into a square hole,” said Shina, about the process the Demoulases were following.
While the site proposal seems settled, the legal issues are as volatile as ever. A June 9 referendum that showed substantial support from Old Town residents for the Demoulases to retain commercial status on their cafe site is being challenged by the city. Officials have asked the Penobscot County Superior Court to reject the vote, which overrode a decision by the city council in March to prevent the residential site from being zoned commercial.
Demoulas attorney Ed Bearor, however, believes the challenge, which may be decided next month, will be dismissed.
“The city is suing [the Demoulases] for a law made by the city,” said Bearor Monday night after the meeting. “It would be like stopping the turnpike referendum. Should we sue the referendum organizers, or challenge the whole state of Maine?”
“We had over 500 signatures for our application, and it was prepared with the city of Old Town,” said Claudia Demoulas regarding the original application for commercial status, which was initially approved by the city.
In addition, the Demoulases have filed a counterclaim for allegedly defamatory statements made by City Manager Ron Singel in a weekly newspaper.
The biggest obstacle to the cafe’s reopening as a restaurant is its bid for a victualer’s license. The license,necessary to operate a restaurant, has been repeatedly ignored by the council, according to Bearor.
“Our second goal is to address the city’s failure to process the application for a victualer’s license. We were told we could obtain one in March, but they just won’t schedule a meeting,” said Bearor. “They assume a restaurant will be run.”
Because the lot is still classified as a C-1, the Demoulases for the time being want to operate as a take-out eatery, which is legal without a victualer’s license.
Then there is the question of a fine for the time the Market Cafe had been operating without city approval. When the Demoulases were shut down in March, they had been operating the cafe for more than nine months, according to board member Lenny Vandez.
“The fine is $100 a day,” he said.
The fate of Market Cafe, however, is now in the hands of the Old Town City Council and the Penobscot County Courthouse.