A hearing was held Thursday at the Department of Consumer Protection’s office in Hartford, after a West Hartford resident filed a remonstrance petition requesting that Los Imperios’ liquor license be non-renewed.
By Ronni Newton
State Liquor Control commissioners listened to testimony from more than a dozen West Hartford residents as well as Acting Police Chief Dan Coppinger Thursday morning, and within 90 days will render their decision about whether or not the liquor license of Los Imperios will be renewed.
Los Imperios is also facing eviction due to non-payment of rent to its landlord, Lisaraj. A trial on that complaint was held on Nov. 21, and Jeffrey Sachs, attorney for Lisaraj, told We-Ha.com on Thursday afternoon that the “landlord won the case” and Los Imperios must vacate the premises by March 15, 2018, or earlier if back rent is not paid in accordance with a set schedule.
Farmington Avenue resident Melinda Montovani filed the remonstrance petition with the State Liquor Control Commission on Sept. 22, and it was signed by 57 residents in the West Hartford neighborhood of the 904 Farmington Ave. business who objected to the renewal of Los Imperios’ liquor license. Ten signatures are required to petition for a remonstrance hearing.
Residents, police, and Mayor Shari Cantor all presented testimony at the hearing, backed up by extensive evidence of dangerous incidents and hazards to the neighborhood, and requested that the the Liquor Control Commission not renew Los Imperios’ liquor license.
Los Imperios owner Ernesto Leon, who arrived 40 minutes late to the 10 a.m. hearing, was provided with the opportunity to ask questions of those who testified and to give his own testimony at the end of the hearing.
Liquor Control Agent Jaci Lewis, who reviewed the remonstrance on behalf of the Liquor Control Commission, said that the “overall concern was the lewd and disorderly conduct of patrons as they left the bar at night.”
According to Lewis, there have been 15 complaints about Los Imperios in the past year stemming primarily from fights inside the establishment, sale of alcohol to minors, and activity outside the premises after hours. She said she has met with Los Imperios owner Ernesto Leon regarding every case and has been to the premises “many, many times.”
Lewis told Montovani said that she had previously determined that Los Imperios falls within the guidelines of operating as a restaurant, with a cook and server on the premises every day and the dining room set up for meal service. The type of liquor license the establishment has allows for service of alcohol by a restaurant.
Montovani said in her 10 minutes of testimony, the text of which was accepted into evidence by the commissioners, that it is “evident that alcohol consumption is the largest contributor to all the complaints” and said that Los Imperios’ operation is consistent with a bar, not a restaurant.
She said that the only difference between when patrons go into Los Imperios and when they come out, often with drinks still in hand, is the consumption of alcohol. Montovani said she and a friend went to have dinner at Los Imperios 0n a weeknight and were the only ones eating there for two hours.
“It does not seem as if they are operating as a restaurant,” Montovani said. Another Farmington Avenue resident, Joan McNulty, filed a remonstrance in 2014, when Los Imperios first applied for its permit, claiming that Los Imperios would be no different than its predecessor, Shish Lounge. A liquor license was granted by the Liquor Control Commission at that time, however, because they said there was not enough evidence presented in the remonstrance to prohibit it and the business owner said that Los Imperios would be a family restaurant.
Montovani told the commissioners that Los Imperios portrays themselves on Facebook and through advertisements as “a bar,” and also provided documents that included multiple police reports and photographs of trash, broken bottles, condoms, used tampons and sanitary products, and other materials that residents have had to clean up from their yards, the sidewalk, and the roadway.
“Los Imperios puts out advertisements for $2 mixed drinks and shots, which encourages intoxication and the behaviors which commonly follow drunkenness resulting in fights and violence,” said Montovani. She said she does not believe the behavior which has resulted in problems throughout the neighborhood would result if the establishment had its liquor license revoked.
“I am woken up at night hearing people yelling profanities, fighting. There have been gunshots. I have stopped opening my windows and will not go out at night alone when they are open,” said Montovani. “This is my home. No one should have to put up with this even once, let alone on a weekly basis.”
Others fear going out alone at night and call police on a regular basis. There are other safety issues, including cars blocking the road and having “block parties” in the middle of the street.
Other complaints that Montovani has been made aware of include parking in residents’ spaces at the Hampshire House across the street because Los Imperios fails to provide enough parking. “We have other neighbors who have been complaining about people urinating on the lawns, in the bushes, there’s been people having witnessed people having sex in their cars, throwing the condoms on the lawns,” said Montovani.
“There’s children in the neighborhood,” Montovani said.
She also noted that the fines for the extra police detail imposed by the chief in accordance with the town’s entertainment license provisions have gone unheeded, leading to legal action by the town which is currently in process. The building owner has also filed with the court for eviction, Montovani said.
“This does not show what the owner has claimed to be,” said Montovani.
“Revoking the liquor license is the solution to stopping all of this,” said Montovani, adding that she wants it on record that if someone is seriously injured or killed, the West Hartford Police Department has done everything they can do to contain the behavior and improve safety, and the town has done all they can, and now the community is doing everything it can to keep the neighborhood safe.
“The safety of our community now lies in your hands,” Montovani said, making her plea for the non-renewal of the liquor license.
Mayor Shari Cantor was among those who provided testimony Thursday. She said that the “actions and inactions” of Los Imperios owners have “threatened and continued to threaten the peace and security of the Town of West Hartford.”
Cantor said in her 13 years on the Town Council she has never requested non-renewal of a liquor license, and while the town promotes businesses and vibrancy, “this has crossed the line … Los Imperios has become a nuisance and truly a danger to our town and community.”
It may be set up as a restaurant, and that’s what it is zoned for, but Los Imperios does not operate as a restaurant. While other restaurants in town serve liquor, it’s not secondary to its operations, Cantor said.
Los Imperios consistently violates statutes, has an illegal dance floor, gunshots have been fired outside the club, they serve minors, Cantor said.
“Los Imperios does ID checks at the door. Los Imperios collects cover charges at the door. Los Imperios pats down patrons at the door. Restaurants do not admit customers this way but nightclubs do, and nightclubs that expect trouble pat patrons down,” said Cantor. Nightclubs are not permitted in the Town of West Hartford, and Los Imperios’ owner was told that in advance and claimed he was planning to operate a restaurant.
Cantor said that it’s “absolutely outrageous that we have to plan for fights and medical services at a West Hartford restaurant” and Los Imperios has consistently failed to comply with West Hartford zoning regulations, does not have a workable surveillance system, applied for an entertainment license and then disregarded its provisions.
“Los Imperios is an unfortunate example of a business that is out of control. It is up to you now,” Cantor told the commissioners. “Los Imperios has abused its privilege of selling liquor.”
Other speakers included Assistant Police Chief Robert McCue, who submitted as testimony 18 pages of documented history of complaints from neighbors and other incidents.
McCue said that when he and others from the town explained to Leon that there had been problems with the previous occupant of the premises operating as a club, he assured them that he was going to run a restaurant. “Within two weeks most of those promises went out the window,” McCue said.
McCue noted that subsequent incidents have included a patron needing multiple staples after being cut by flying glass, 10 rounds from a 9mm gun fired outside the premises on Farmington Avenue, police needing to use a stun gun inside the establishment, fights that led to arrests including of a Los Imperios bouncer, marijuana found on the dance floor, and an unconscious male found bleeding on the dance floor with no one able to explain how it happened.
There have been 17 DUI arrests of patrons who have been at Los Imperios, and multiple crashes, including one into a house, McCue said.
Los Imperios has continued to provide DJ entertainment even though the entertainment license has been suspended, McCue said.
“We have 40 or so other restaurants in the area that have liquor permits … there’s no other establishment in West Hartford that has established a track record like this,” McCue said.
In response to a question from Commissioner David Scribner, McCue said that the police detail has been provided as a provision of the town’s entertainment ordinance and has led to a reduction in the violence. Although Los Imperios has had its entertainment license revoked in August, DJ entertainment is still being provided and police fear what would happen if the detail were not provided, he said. McCue advised We-Ha.com that the latest bill for the detail, as of Nov. 13, was $87,919.
Testimony provided by neighborhood residents highlighted a litany of problems with noise, violence, and trash, all resulting from intoxicated patrons of Los Imperios.
Milton Street resident Naomi Rafalowicz said her anxiety begins on Thursday and doesn’t end until Sunday morning. She said she has called police multiple times and on “frequent occasions has seen people urinate on neighbor’s lawns and in neighbor’s bushes.” Because of the noise she can no longer open her windows at night, and on more than one occasion has had to fill in the tire tracks left on her lawn from patrons making u-turns at the end of Arnold Way, which is right opposite her home.
Chris Holley, also a Milton Street resident, said that nearly every weekend he observes the “pre-club partying” taking place outside his home, including people smoking pot. But the “before” is “nothing compared to after closing, when these same people have been drinking for hours.”
Holley said he has had to call police about noise at least a half-dozen times – complaints about excessive noise occurring between 1-2:30 a.m. on Friday mornings when he has to get up to go to work. He regularly picks up the trash left behind, which has included liquor bottles, feminine products, birth control pills, and used condoms.
Holley said he has had to reassure his 16-year-old daughter, who is anxious about fights and shooting, that if there are shots, the bullets won’t make it up to her second floor bedroom.
“Without their license none of these issues would be occurring and my family and neighborhood would feel safe again,” Holley said.
Farmington Avenue resident Mary Alice Sullivan said she has called police on several occasions, including when she heard a woman screaming to have someone let go of her throat.
Lauren Luomo, who lives on Milton, presented photographs of trash – multiple liquor bottles – she picked up on Thanksgiving morning.
McNulty, who filed for the remonstrance in 2014, said that Los Imperios “is not a suitable business for a residential neighborhood” and that Leon, who has not changed his practices, is not a suitable person to be operating this business.
“Mr. Leon is responsible for this plague on our neighborhood,” McNulty said.
Mary Jo Andrews, who lives in the Hampshire House condominium building directly across the street, said she has to think twice about inviting friends over on weekend evenings because they have to park on the street. “It’s just not a safe atmosphere.”
Coppinger said that Los Imperios has been a nightclub “and has been since day one,” despite Leon telling the town that he was going to open up a family restaurant. “This is not a family restaurant. I wish it was but that’s just not the case.”
Coppinger said that to stem all the complaints, more police officers would be needed, but that would be a drain on town resources.
“It’s unfair to say I’m not working with the town. I’ve done everything that they’ve asked for,” Leon said in his testimony.
“I’ve been attacked from day one,” Leon told the commissioners, and this is a family-owned business.
He blamed the negative publicity and the town for the image of his restaurant as being only a nightclub when he has three menus and is open every day but Tuesday. He has paid security guards and valet parking, and they try to work with police to disperse the crowd.
Leon at first told commissioners that his food sales represent 20 percent of receipts, but then modified his statement to say food is 40 percent of receipts. He has been asked to produce documentation.
The Liquor Control Commission has 90 days to render its decision, and during that time Los Imperios is permitted to service alcohol because their permit status is “active under review.”
The establishment is also awaiting the court’s final approval of an order proposed by West Hartford Assistant Corporation Counsel Garmon Newsom following a hearing on Monday. That order would require the establishment to comply with town ordinances, including stopping DJ entertainment, or face fines and allow the West Hartford Police to “evacuate and close Los Imperios for the remainder of that business day and for any other business day” that they are not in compliance. The order would also demand repayment of the cost of the police detail.
Sachs, the attorney for the landlord, confirmed Thursday that in accordance with the Stipulated Agreement of the Parties following the Nov. 21 court appearance, Los Imperios must vacate the premises no later than March 15, 2018. The business will be permitted to remain on the premises through March 15 only if they make payments of $8,400 in back rent on or before Dec. 15, Jan. 15, Feb, 15, and March 7, and pay all water bills.
If they fail to comply, Sachs said he would “apply to the sherriff to have his property removed.”
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