The Northport Zoning Board had a hard time swallowing requests from for a full liquor license and outdoor music at a public hearing on Wednesday night, citing concerns that the restaurant may waver into tavern territory.
In a packed Village Hall, ZBA Chair Andrew Cangemi said he feels that Nina's Pizza owner Artie Berke is "nibbling away at the code" for the only neighborhood business district in the area by asking for a full liquor license, a live music permit, and to be designated unconditionally as a restaurant.
"The neighborhood is a very small contained district over there. If we grant this application to Artie, I would find it very difficult to understand how that grant wouldn't be used against us in the future, and that is the problem..if this use starts to expand," said Cangemi.
"What you're asking us to do may be something that should be addressed by the village board, which is basically to amend the code, allowing a use that's not allowed right now. It means you have a significant burden to overcome, legally, to...give us the evidence to change within the zoning."
When the ZBA made the decision four years ago to allow Nina's to expand seating and serve beer and wine, they wrote that Nina's "should never be permitted to morph into a bar or a tavern or a place to consumer alcohol as opposed to a place to eat and have beverages with a meal." Concerns now focus on whether the pizzeria would waiver into bar territory.
When Berke added that he was requesting an additional eight seats for the counter area, which currently has four stools, members of the public in opposition cried out saying, "It's a bar!"
Berke relented, saying he wasn't adamant about the additional seating, and maintained that Nina's has no intention of becoming a bar and wishes to remain a family restaurant. His requests are simply a matter of raising the bottom line, he said, citing increasing competition from surrounding restaurants and the stresses of a faltering economy, to which Board Member Jaclyn Ingham took issue.
"If you're coming here on the basis of it being a hardship, then shouldn't you be presenting evidence from a qualified person, like an accountant, to present your case?" she asked.
Berke responded that he does his books himself and offered to bring in records at a later date, saying that business "pays the bills," but he pretty much cuts even at the end of the year.
"I just feel that it's something necessary for us to be there in another 10 years," he said, adding that boisterous heavy drinking crowds have other options in Northport and the operating hours of Nina's, which he does not intend to change, are not conducive with a late-night bar crowd. "My wife would kill me. She yells at me when it's loud downstairs as it is," he laughed.
Berke said he's been a good neighbor to the surrounding residences and has never had trouble with the police at Nina's. Many spoke in support of Berke during the public comment portion of the hearing.
Rebecca Varese, who grew up in East Northport, said, "Artie does so much for Northport...If this is going to help him keep doing the good things he's already doing, I'm all for it."
James Greene, who said he lives "two stones throws away from Nina's" said that Nina's is a good neighbor and urged the board to give Berke what he wants. "Artie is the first person who's made the location a success," he said.
ZBA Chair Cangemi reiterated his concerns. "There might be other store fronts that open up that might want to do the same thing [in the neighborhood business district] since we allowed Artie to do it," he said. "We cannot make a variance for one specific business or business owner."
Those in opposition of Berke's requests cited concerns over increased usage.
Diane Lazolla, of 461 Main Street, submitted pictures of what she said was garbage out on a Sunday and delivery trucks blocking her driveway. "Live music, liquor license, 12 stools? It really does sound like a bar," she said, adding that she is concerned that unresolved issues will be further compromised.
Others in opposition called the requests a "slippery slope" and said that increased usage may devalue their properties and cause increased traffic and refuse. Berke agreed to address the complaints from his neighbors currently at issue and argued that his requests are simply to offer more options to his customers.
The Board has not yet made a decision on the requests. Patch will continue to follow this story and report the results once a decision has been made.